We lost one of the most respected and loved drummers and vocalists yesterday when Levon Helm passed away at the age of 71, after a long battle with cancer.
Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm is best known as the drummer and sometimes lead vocalist of The Band. He joined Ronnie Hawkins' group The Hawks and moved to Canada where most of the musicians who were to become known as The Band were recruited (Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson). Ronnie left and a few years later, when Bob Dylan decided to try his hand at electric music, he asked them to be his backing band. Levon left for a couple of years but returned for Woodstock in 1967 at which point The Hawks became known as The Band and released their debut album Music from Big Pink which included the classic The Weight on which Levon had the lead vocal. The Band broke up in 1976 after their farewell concert which featured in the Martin Scorcese film The Last Waltz. Levon released a few solo albums, and reunited with his former Band members, except Robbie Robertson, in 1983. Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986, but the other members continued touring and released albums until 1998.
In the late 90s Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer and was unable to sing for a number of years. He began hosting concerts known as the Midnight Ramble from his home in Woodstock New York with musical friends, the proceeds of which helped pay his medical bills. By 2004 he was able to sing again and released his Grammy Award winning album Dirt Farmer in 2007, followed by Electric Dirt which won the very first Americana Album award at the Grammys in 2010.
In 2008 I was fortunate enough to witness first hand Ramble at the Ryman, which launched the Americana Music festival in Nashville. In a packed Ryman Auditorium (a venue in which you can almost feel the ghosts of the country music legends who have graced the stage here over the years), Levon and his musical friends including band leader Larry Campbell, Buddy Miller, Allison Moorer, Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow, Delbert McClinton, Billy Bob Thornton and John Hiatt entertained us with renditions of The Band and Dirt Farmer songs, culminating in an emotional encore featuring a performance of The Weight. It was the highlight of my Nashville trip. Levon looked older than his 68 years but sat behind his drum kit, grinning from ear to ear obviously enjoying the evening as much as the audience. I knew then that I was in the presence of a legend, one that I was unlikely to see perform again (although admittedly I saw him the following evening when he appeared at the AMA Awards show!).
The next day I purchased a copy of his autobiography to find out more about the great man - it's well worth reading if you're at all interested. The Ramble at The Ryman show was filmed and has since appeared as a CD and DVD. The CD was yet another Grammy Award winner for Levon.
Levon's memory will live on through the great songs he's written and performed on and the many musicians he's influenced, but the world of Americana music won't be the same without him.