Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sad news about Levon Helm

Just ran across this letter from the family of Levon Helm:

Dear Friends,

Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.

Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration … he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage …

We appreciate all the love and support and concern.

From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy

Helm was not the primary drummer when the group that was then known as the Hawks and later became known as The Band originally backed Bob Dylan on his first "electric" tour. He took a two-year leave of absence after the first couple of performances with Dylan sparked a mostly negative response from audiences. He was replaced by Mickey Jones.

He was also the only American in the band. Helm, who was born May 26, 1940, in Marvell, Ark., created his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters, while still in high school. By the time he was 17, the band was playing the club circuit in and around Helena, Ark. Upon graduation from high school, Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly singer popular throughout the southern United States at the time, asked him to join his band, The Hawks. According to his autobiography, Helm’s real name is Mark Lavon Helm, but he changed it to Levon because the other members of the Hawks had trouble pronouncing Lavon correctly.

Rockabilly at the time was also popular in Canada and Hawkins eventually relocated to Toronto in 1959. A couple of years later, Helm and Hawkins had to recruit all new band members and they settled on Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. In 1963, Hawkins and his backup musicians went their separate ways and Helm’s group became known first as Levon and the Hawks and later The Canadian Squires and, finally, simply, The Hawks.

During his two-year sabbatical, while the rest of the group was backing Dylan, Helm worked on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Following a European tour, Dylan decided to withdraw from public life and he holed up with the band in Woodstock, N.Y. In 1967, Danko called Helm and asked him to rejoin the group and together they played with Dylan almost daily, producing a series of demos that would quickly become known as The Basement Tapes.

That was my first exposure to the Band. Through connections I had at the time, I secured about a dozen reel-to-reel tapes of those songs Dylan and The Band recorded in early 1968. Later that year The Band released its first album, Music from the Big Pink, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I loved that album. I listened to it over and over again. My personal favorite song on the Big Pink was Chest Fever. In August of 1968, I moved from Austin to Dallas carrying all my worldly possessions (namely ragged clothes) in a foot locker onboard a Greyhound bus. Shortly after my arrival I found myself a second floor flat in Oak Cliff that suited my purposes and my pocketbook and I bought myself a small transistor radio, one of those little fits-in-your-hand mechanisms popular at the time that you had to place near a window in order to get any kind of reception at all. I tuned in to the only FM rock oriented station at the time (it was a Gordon McClendon-owned station — KNUS 98.7 — this was before the advent of WFAA’s FM offshoot, The Zoo). Jon Dillon, who later gained some well deserved notoriety when the Zoo did form, was a disc jockey for KNUS and one of the first things I heard him say was that he wanted listeners to call in with requests. I was suffering from Chest Fever withdrawal big time so I called the number and — waddya know? — wound up talking directly to Mr. Dillon his ownself. I requested Chest Fever by The Band. To this day, I recall in horror his response verbatim: "I just played Three Dog Night’s version of that song." I slammed down the receiver, picked up the tiny transistor radio and hurled it out the window and watched as it smashed into pieces on the ground below. To this day — almost 44 years later — I have never listened to a Dallas radio station that plays music. For me, Dallas radio is only Chuck Cooperstein, Brad Sham and Eric Nadel.

I finally got to meet Levon Helm and the rest of The Band at Austin’s Sunday Break II. It was after the show, around 2 or 3 in the morning, and I was alone in the lobby of Driskill Hotel, sitting at the piano with one hand playing with the keys and the other wrapped around a gin and tonic. Then the group walked in. Richard Manuel sat next to me on the bench, saying "Mind if I join you." Then he began playing with the piano and broke into That’s All Right, with the rest of the band (and yours truly) joining in on the vocals. We then sang Rock Around the Clock, Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean, Mystery Train and a couple of others I’ve long forgotten.

But I’ve never forgotten the night I played with Levon Helm and the rest of The Band.

The above video features Levon’s unique vocals and drum stylings on The Weight, my second favorite song from Big Pink.

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