The sad news came today that after a two-year battle with cancer, Levon Helm has passed away at the age of 71.
Levon (real name Mark Lavon Helm) was born on May 26th, 1940 in Arkansas to a music-loving family.
When Levon was nine, his father gave him his first guitar, and when he was twelve, Levon built his younger sister a string bass that she would play while he sang and play his guitar and harmonica.
Ronnie Hawkins was gathering musicians to tour Canada, and he needed a drummer. Levon, having previously been inspired picking up the drums after seeing Jerry Lee Lewis’s drummer, joined The Hawks in 1957 after he finished high school.
(The Hawks’ “Farther on Up the Road” in 1961)
In the early 60s, after releasing a couple of records, Ronnie and Levon recruited four Canadian musicians—Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson—that would eventually break off with Levon to form “Levon and the Hawks.”
The mid-60s found the band touring with Bob Dylan on his first tour playing electric music, and in 1968, after working on new material in a big pink house in Woodstock, New York, the newly dubbed “The Band” released their brilliant debut album, Music from Big Pink.
The Band’s final performance (until a reunion some years later) took place on Thanksgiving 1976. Called “The Last Waltz,” the lineup of guest performers—Neil Young, Ringo Starr, and Muddy Waters, to name a few—spoke to how beloved The Band were.
(“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from TLW)
Following The Band’s dissolvement, Levon started releasing solo albums, beginning with The RCO All-Stars in 1970.
Levon made his acting debut in 1980 in “The Coal Minor’s Daughter” and he has continued to appear on screen every so often over the subsequent decades.
(clip from “The Coal Minor’s Daughter”)
A reconnection with Rick Danko in the 80s led to The Band partially reuniting for a few years of touring, and they released everal more albums in the 90s.
Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, and although he never stopped playing his instruments, it took him a little while to get his voice back.
He certainly did get it back, though, and in his later years, he kept singing and playing, making records and hosting midnight ramble Sessions at “The Barn” in Woodstock, which has served at his studio and home since the mid-70s.
(Levon talking about “Dirt Farmer” and the Midnight Ramble)
(Levon’s “Poor Old Dirt Farmer” music video)
(“Anna Lee” from 2011 Ramble At The Ryman DVD)
“Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me.” – Robbie Robertson