Levon Helm Dead at 71

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    His excellence as a drummer often overshadowed by his distinctive singing voice, Levon Helm has died after a long battle with cancer. (Read the Los Angeles Times obituary here.) Known primarily for his years recording with The Band, Levon’s best vocal work — his timbre a blend of country, rockabilly, gospel and blues rooted in an Arkansas backwater — includes the original studio versions of “The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Smoke Signals” and “Forbidden Fruit”; occasional forays into tenderness (“All La Glory”, “The River Hymn”); the soaring live recordings of “Don’t Do It” and “Rag Mama Rag” off of the Rock of Ages album; a guttural “Up On Cripple Creek” from Before the Flood; and balls-to-the-walls renditions of “Ophelia”, “Mystery Train” (with Paul Butterfield) and “Up On Cripple Creek” in The Last Waltz, the latter capped off by Levon’s “Yeah, yeah, you know I sure wish I could yodel like a yodel-odley-yodely-oh,” the throaty proclamation sending a smile across Robbie Robertson’s face in Martin Scorsese’s celebrated film of the concert.

    He also contributed evocative backing vocals which became instrumental in shaping the unique sound of The Band, especially the haunting duet shared with Richard Manuel on “Whispering Pines” and his alternating harmonies with Manuel and Rick Danko on “Jemima Surrender”, “Chest Fever”, “The Rumor” and “Acadian Driftwood”. After appearing in The Last Waltz, Levon branched out into a somewhat steady, relatively lucrative and entirely unexpected secondary career as a character actor: Coal Miner’s Daughter, Smooth Talk and The Right Stuff are all worth checking out. He was an inspired choice to play Wilford Brimley’s buddy in the rural comedy/drama End of the Line, while Band fans may be interested in the obscure (though not terribly good) non-musical 1989 film, Man Outside, in which he appears with Manuel, Danko and Garth Hudson. A major influence on yours truly since the 1970s (I was privileged to see him play live on four separate occasions: twice with The Band, once with Dylan and The Band, once with Ringo), Helm was a consummate musician and an eager showman who obviously loved his craft and possessed an innate ability to get people dancing.

Play this clip loud:



“Ashes of laughter, the ghost is clear
Why do the best things always disappear?”

6 comments:

swac said...

It's out of print, but I recommend tracking down Levon Helm's RCO All-Stars album, which lives up to its billing: Booker T. Jones, Dr. John, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn and Paul Butterfield are among the conspirators. In-print is a recently released CD of a 1977 New Year's Eve show in New York, with the same lineup.

Sissy said...

I recently caught him in Tommy Lee Jones film "The Three Burials of Melquiades", it was a haunting performance, of course loved his music, RIP...

Professor Batty said...

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down was arguably the best song ever written about the American Civil War. Levon was unarguably its best interpreter.

Charlie Essmeier said...

I've never understood the critical praise for The Band, and for the past 40 years I've been trying to figure out exactly why everyone so loves this group's bad country/bad folk/bad rock mashup.

"The Weight" is, without a doubt, one of the two or three worst songs I've ever head in my life.

Bad melody. Bad lyrics. Bad harmony. Horrendous singing.

Horrendous singing, they name is Levon Helm.

Professor Batty said...

Charlie, you probably don't understand it because you are a marketer. Don't try to figure it out. Leave it alone. Stick to promoting ads that have enriched so many lives around the world.

Peter Yezukevich said...

Go fuck yourself, Charlie. For every reason possible. Everybody else: please pardon my language. I know ours is a civil place, but there are limits.