Levon Helm was the rarest of musical multi-taskers: an unflappable drummer and a singer who wrung soul out of every note. He also was a terrific team player and bandmate; he made the people around him sound good.
Helm was "the only drummer who could make you cry," critic Jon Carroll once wrote.
"It's nearly impossible to sing so smoothly and hit that hard at the same time," singer
Helm, who died Thursday in New York City at age 71 after a long battle with
In the '90s his gutsy tenor voice was reduced to a croak because of
Mark Lavon Helm was born (according to his official website) on May 26, 1940 in Arkansas, the son of music-loving cotton farmers (he reputedly became known as "Levon" because it was easier for his bandmates to pronounce). As a teenager, he was a regular in the clubs around Helena, Ark., and was recruited by singer Ronnie Hawkins to join his band, the Hawks.
Helm then helped enlist Robertson, Manuel, Danko and Hudson, all of whom were Canadian. They developed a telepathic interplay during grueling one-night stands across the country. As the group began seasoning its country-blues-rock 'n' roll stew with soulful harmonies and R&B grooves, it left behind its more one-dimensional leader, who remained a devotee of Sun Records-style rockabilly.
By the mid-'60s, Levon and the Hawks, as they were sometimes known, were supporting
Together, the hurricane-haired bard and the grizzled-beyond-its-years bar band reinvented rock, meshing Dylan's poetic assault with roller-coaster surges of sound: Robertson's slice-and-dice guitar, the gospel-soul keyboard interplay of Manuel and Hudson, the peerless groove of Danko's bass and Helm's drums.
The audience reaction was nearly as violent as the music; some fans accused Dylan of selling out and greeted him with boos and insults. Discouraged, Helm quit and eventually went to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dylan and the rest of the Hawks regrouped in upstate New York in 1967-68 and rejuvenated themselves by playing acoustic music in the basement of a house known as Big
Helm was persuaded to rejoin the group, and soon he and the rest of the Hawks were signed by
But a simpler moniker stuck: The Band, which seemed to suit the quintet's insular demeanor. It also created an impression of aloofness; on stage the quintet often seemed to be playing to each other, rather than for an audience. Yet it was exactly that quality that made the 1968 debut, "Music From Big Pink," a landmark.
In the flower power era, "Music From Big Pink" was a rustic affront to convention. It was revolutionary by not catering to the revolutionary rhetoric of the times, instead addressing themes that were personal, spiritual and familial. At a time when parents were portrayed as the enemy, the album's gatefold featured a portrait of the band members posing with their next of kin in front of a farm house.
The self-titled follow-up expanded this homespun approach to visionary proportions, embracing the South and its lore as a metaphor for universal longing. The effect was enhanced by Elliot Landy's stark black-and-white photography, in which the band's baleful, bearded 19th Century faces seemed drawn from the characters in Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," as movingly sung by Helm, the band's sole Southerner.
With these two albums as a springboard, The Band became one of the most celebrated groups of the era, even without any major hits. It was splashed on the cover of Time magazine and reunited with Dylan to tour in 1974, this time to wild acclamation and sizable profit.
Subsequent albums lacked the staying power of the first two, and Robertson – who had established himself as the band's primary songwriter – eventually wanted out to start a career in Hollywood. He concocted "The Last Waltz," a lavish 1976 dinner-concert-movie with numerous guest stars (including Dylan,
Robertson's primary accomplice was movie director
Helm developed a credible career as an actor, most notably playing
He also continued to participate in various Band reunions with Manuel, Danko and Hudson, but the road took a tragic toll. Manuel committed suicide in 1986 and Danko died of a drug-related
He later released the acclaimed "Dirt Farmer" and "Electric Dirt" solo albums, digging into the rich soil of country, blues, soul and gospel that he had known since his childhood. "Dirt Farmer" brought him his first Grammy Award in 2008, and "Electric Dirt" and the live "Ramble at the Ryman" (2011) also won Grammys. The voice that had been reduced to a whisper by illness was now a world-weary drawl, weathered by time but not defeated by it.