Levon Helm 1940-2012

By | Published on Friday 20 April 2012

Levon Helm

Levon Helm of iconic roots rock group The Band has died, aged 71. His death follows confirmation earlier this week that the multi-instrumentalist was “in the final stages of his battle with cancer”.

Born in Arkansas, Helm had a passion for music from childhood, and shortly after graduating from high school joined the band of rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins, The Hawks. Both he and Hawkins relocated to Canada and in 1959, now Toronto-based, signed to Roulette Records. The two men recruited various new Canadian musicians to the band, released some singles and scored some hits, and continued to tour prolifically around bars and clubs in the US and Canada.

In 1963 Hawkins left the band, but the other musicians continued to perform together, using a number of monikers, including Levon And The Hawks, before returning to simply The Hawks.

It was during this period that a certain Bob Dylan, making his famous move from folk to rock, asked the group to be his backing band. Dylan’s change in direction, of course, proved controversial amongst his fans, and disheartened by that response Helm dropped out of the band for a full two years, before being asked to return in 1967. By this point the band had become informally known as The Band, and when new contracts were negotiated with manager Albert Grossman and Capitol Records that was the name that was used.

The Band’s most famous period then followed, as they performed and recorded both on their own and with Dylan. Although perhaps best known as the band’s drummer, all members of The Band were multi-instrumentalists, and Helm also played mandolin and guitar, and provided some vocals. Their debut album as The Band, ‘Music From Big Pink’ in 1968, elevated the group’s own profile, and eight more productive years followed, up until their farewell concert, ‘The Last Waltz’, in 1976, a show made famous by the fact it was the subject of a documentary film by Martin Scorsese.

Many people’s memories of Helm will probably stem from this film, even though he himself was dismissive of it, and many have criticised the documentary for putting far too much focus on one of The Band’s members in particular, Robbie Robertson.

After the break up, Helm worked on various solo projects, and collaborated with other artists, before reforming The Band, albeit without Robertson, in 1983. The slightly streamlined outfit continued to tour and record, even after fellow founder member Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986. The final album from the group came in 1998 in the form of ‘Jubilation’, which marked the 30th anniversary of their debut release.

Outside of The Band, Helm had a stint in Ringo Star’s All-Starr Band, and also pursued other music projects, perhaps most notably in the 2000s a series of musical gatherings at his Woodstock home under the banner The Midnight Ramble. He also collaborated with his daughter Amy Helm, who co-produced his 2007 solo album ‘Dirt Farmer’.

Ill-health dogged Helm’s life from the late 1990s when he was diagnosed with throat cancer – and some of the Midnight Ramble shows were designed to raise money for medical bills. The tumour was successfully removed, but it had an impact on his voice, so much so he refrained from singing for a time. The cancer ultimately returned and in recent months concerns rose about his health as a number of live performances were cancelled. Speculation rose further at last weekend’s Hall Of Fame event in New York when Robbie Robertson sent “love and prayers” to his former bandmate.

Confirming Helm’s death yesterday, longtime friend and guitarist Larry Campbell told Rolling Stone: “He passed away peacefully at 1.30 this afternoon surrounded by his friends and bandmates. All his friends were there, and it seemed like Levon was waiting for them. Ten minutes after they left we sat there and he just faded away. He did it with dignity”.