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A much-loved figure in American music, Levon Helm was a singer and multi-instrumentalist whose Arkansas upbringing lent a genuine country feel to his work with The Band, which included the seminal songs "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek." He began playing music in his teens, eventually joining rockabilly veteran Ronnie Hawkins in the Hawks, who enjoyed a pair of modest hits in the early 1960s. Helm and his fellow Hawks Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson eventually formed their own group, which became The Band, Bob Dylan's one-time backing band during his conversion to rock-n-roll in the mid-1960s. The Band eventually established themselves as a formidable music entity apart from Dylan through a series of acclaimed albums that merged country, rock, blues and folk and laid the groundwork for what would eventually become known as Americana. When The Band split in 1976, Helm released solo efforts while enjoying a successful second career as an actor in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), among other films. In 1996, he was struck with throat cancer, which robbed him of his voice; he began organizing informal shows at his home in Woodstock that attracted major musicians to serve...
A much-loved figure in American music, Levon Helm was a singer and multi-instrumentalist whose Arkansas upbringing lent a genuine country feel to his work with The Band, which included the seminal songs "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek." He began playing music in his teens, eventually joining rockabilly veteran Ronnie Hawkins in the Hawks, who enjoyed a pair of modest hits in the early 1960s. Helm and his fellow Hawks Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson eventually formed their own group, which became The Band, Bob Dylan's one-time backing band during his conversion to rock-n-roll in the mid-1960s. The Band eventually established themselves as a formidable music entity apart from Dylan through a series of acclaimed albums that merged country, rock, blues and folk and laid the groundwork for what would eventually become known as Americana. When The Band split in 1976, Helm released solo efforts while enjoying a successful second career as an actor in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), among other films. In 1996, he was struck with throat cancer, which robbed him of his voice; he began organizing informal shows at his home in Woodstock that attracted major musicians to serve as his sidemen. The return of his distinctive voice preceded three Grammy-winning solo albums, but by 2012, the cancer had returned, eventually claiming his life in April of that year. His death robbed American music of one of its most enthusiastic and indomitable talents.
Born Mark Lavon Helm in Marvell, AR on May 26, 1940, Levon Helm was the son of cotton farmers Nell and Diamond Helm, who raised their four children in the hamlet of Turkey Scratch. A musician in his spare time, Helm's father frequently took the family to see traveling music shows, including the legendary bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, whose precise mandolin picking and high, lonesome vocals had a profound effect on the six-year-old Helm. He decided to become a musician, choosing guitar as his initial instrument. He was also a keen student of the musical tapestry woven by Midwestern radio during the 1940s and early 1950s. On any given night, he could choose to hear the traditional country sounds of the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville's WSM or the raucous blues and R&B favored by WLAC, another popular station in Music City.
Helm soon began to apply the lessons learned from this confluence of music to his own band, a sibling act with his sister called "Lavon and Linda," which he launched at the age of 12. Helm built his sister a stand-up bass from a washtub while accompanying her vocals on harmonica and hambone (percussion created by slapping one's thighs). The duo soon became a popular attraction at 4-H talent shows throughout Arkansas. In 1954, Helm saw the young Elvis Presley on a bill with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins in Helena. He was immediately transfixed by how the crowd reacted with such intensity to Presley's blend of blues and hillbilly music. A second concert the following year, this time with the great D.J. Fontana on drums, convinced Helm to start his own rock-n-roll band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. He played drums for the group, inspired in part by Jimmy Van Eaton, who had laid down the beat behind Jerry Lee Lewis, but also by the R&B-styled attack of James "Peck" Curtis, whom Helm had seen countless times while backing bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson on his KFFA radio show, The King Biscuit Hour. By the time he was 17, Helm was backing national talents like Conway Twitty, whom he had met while playing as Lavon and Linda.
In 1957, Helm met Ronnie Hawkins, a fellow Arkansas native who had enjoyed considerable success playing rock music throughout Canada. After finishing high school, Helm joined Hawkins' band, The Hawks, and performing extensively on the club circuit in Toronto. The Hawks were signed to Roulette Records in 1959, which generated a pair of hit records in "Forty Days" and "Mary Lou." During this period, he re-christened himself "Levon," inspired in part by the difficulty his bandmates had in pronouncing "Lavon." When the original Hawks lineup left Hawkins, Helm helped the singer recruit new players for the group. They enlisted a talented quartet of Canadian multi-instrumentalists - Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson - to serve as the new Hawks. After countless jaunts across Canada, down the East Coast of the United States and across the South, Helm and his new bandmates decided to form their own group, which they initially called Levon and the Hawks before briefly adopting "The Canadian Squires."
By 1965, they had reverted to The Hawks, and had earned what was unquestionably one of the highest-profile gigs in the world: being Bob Dylan's backing band. Dylan had decided to forgo acoustic folk in favor of electric rock-n-roll, and took the Hawks on tour with him for a series of shows in which Dylan was routinely booed and even challenged by his fans for his musical choice. Disheartened by the nightly negative response, Helm left the group, returning to Arkansas, where he worked on offshore oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The rest of the Hawks followed Dylan to Woodstock, NY where they rehearsed new material almost daily in a large house dubbed "Big Pink" due to its unusual outdoor color. In 1967, Danko asked Helm to rejoin the group, which had just signed with Capitol Records. New manager Albert Grossman, who also managed Dylan, listed the group as "The Band" on their contracts, and the new name soon became their permanent handle.
While still backing Dylan in concert, The Band began to record their own material, which immediately set itself apart from mainstream rock-n-roll of the period with its adherence to the tenets of American roots music: high harmonies; complex acoustic arrangements; elements of blues, country, folk, garage rock and traditional songs; and lyrical content that frequently addressed 19th century culture. On their debut album, 1968's Music from Big Pink, Richard Manuel handled the majority of the vocals, with Helm focusing on drums while providing backup vocals. But by the time The Band had released its eponymous sophomore album, Manuel's health had deteriorated due to alcoholism and other issues, which prompted Helm to share lead vocal duties with Rick Danko. His voice, steeped in a rich, reedy Arkansas accent, lent considerable credence to the band's stories of America past and present, including "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Shape I'm In." Helm also frequently stepped out from behind his drum kit to play guitar, mandolin and even bass.
Grueling tour schedules, as well as growing animosity between Helm and Robertson over The Band's direction, led to the group calling it quits in 1976 with a star-studded farewell performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The event was captured on film by director Martin Scorsese as the highly acclaimed documentary "The Last Waltz" (1978). Helm immediately launched his solo career with 1977's Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars, which failed to break the Billboard 200 albums chart. Its following, simply titled Levon Helm (1978), saw even lower sales, but he found success as an actor in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980) playing Loretta Lynn's (Sissy Spacek) father. In 1982, he released American Son (1980), a well-regarded collection of country songs inspired in part by his work on the popular film. Two years later, Helm released his second eponymous solo album shortly before landing another prominent movie role as Air Force test pilot Colonel Jack Ridley in Philip Kaufman's classic "The Right Stuff" (1983).
That same year, Helm reunited with all of his former Band mates save for Robertson, who had begun an acclaimed tenure as soundtrack composer for Scorsese. The group toured frequently until 1986, when the suicide death of Richard Manuel forced them to once again disband. Helm worked largely as an actor during this period, turning in fine character performances in Joyce Chopra's "Smooth Talk" (1985) and "End of the Line" (1987); in the former, starring as a former railroad worker forced into retirement by his company. In 1989, he toured with Danko and Hudson as part of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band. The following year, the trio performed as The Band opposite Sinead O'Connor as part of Roger Waters' massive "The Wall - Live in Berin" concert. Eventually, they staged a former reunion as The Band, releasing several well received if modestly successful albums, including 1993's Jericho and 1998's Jubilation. The year 1993 also saw the release of Helm's autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, which spared no quarter in lambasting Robertson for allegedly capsizing the group in an attempt to gain control as its leader.
In 1996, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer, which eventually robbed him of his unique voice. He refused to undergo a laryngectomy to combat the illness, opting instead to receive radiation treatment. The cancer eventually receded, but left his finances depleted and his vocal chords damaged. Though unable to sing, he began playing drums at a series of small concerts at his studio in Woodstock which he called "Midnight Rambles," after a racy, after-hours minstrel show he saw in his youth. Backed by a talented band that included his daughter, Amy, Helm called on many of his famous friends to cover vocal duties, including Hudson, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris and Rickie Lee Jones. A 2005 CD, Midnight Rambles, Vol. 1, featuring selections from various shows, received stellar reviews and generated not only a follow-up but also tours throughout North America. By then, Helm had recovered most of his vocal abilities, and was able to sing many of his signature songs, as well as a host of country and blues numbers.
In 2007, Helm released Dirt Farmer, his first solo album in over two decades. Its collection of traditional songs and newer material earned Helm a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. He soon became a staple of major roots-themed events, including the Bonaroo Festival and Warren Haynes' Mountain Jam, before releasing another solo effort, Electric Dirt, which claimed the first Grammy in the newly created category of Americana records in 2010. That same year, the documentary "Ain't in it For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm" (2010), which looked at the singer's life in mid-comeback, was released to festival screenings. The following year saw him address his history with The Band as part of Ramble at the Ryman, a live album recorded at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium. He also continued to maintain his acting career, giving small but memorable turns in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005) as a blind man who feared that his desire to end his life would offend God, and "In the Electric Mist" (2009) as a drug-induced hallucination of Confederate General John Bell Hood. In 2012, Robbie Robertson asked the crowd assembled at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony to offer their prayers to Helm, fueling speculation that his health had taken a turn for the worse. In April, the rumors of terminal cancer were confirmed by the family only two days before it eventually claimed his life on April 19th. Helm's death was mourned by the music community as a whole, many of whom paid sincere tribute to his rich history and talents in a career that stretched over a half-century.
By Paul Gaita
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