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Groovers and Shakers - Levon Helm

Levon Helm was born on May 26th, 1940 in Arkansas. I’m sorry to say I never met Levon, but I came close when I was playing with Garth Hudson and Don McLean. Levon was scheduled to come to a gig at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach in mid-1981 but unfortunately he didn’t make it so the moment passed. However he remains one of my favourite drummers mainly because of what he very cleverly left out of his playing. 

I was always intrigued and fascinated by the way Levon played the drums because even though the elements were simple, the way they were put together actually wasn’t – especially in the light that he was frequently singing at the same time. 

More often than not he wouldn’t be slavishly attached to what Rick Danko (the bass player) was doing. He would happily play single beats on the bass drum on 1 and 3. A lot of the time he’d play fours which, unless you were playing ‘disco’ music could inevitably make the ‘feel’ of the song stodgy. But Levon played them in a ''feathered'', jazzy way so they didn’t intrude and kept the feel going without getting in the way. The songs of course had a great deal to do with it and every now and then during Don McLean’s sound-check, Garth Hudson would absent-mindedly go into one of ‘The Band’s’ songs like ‘Rag Momma Rag’. I would enthusiastically seize the moment and leap in whereupon Garth would suddenly realise what he’d done and stop.  So I’ve played a few bars of quite a few of their great songs – but never a complete one. 

It turns out he was really christened Lavon, but believe it or not, for some reason his mates in Ronnie Hawkins’ band ‘The Hawks’ didn’t like it so they changed it to Levon!

He was born Mark Lavon Helm in a town in Arkansas called Turkey Scratch and his parents were cotton farmers and music-lovers who taught their children to play and sing. At 8 or 9 years old Levon got his first guitar and began to take an interest in drums after seeing Jerry Lee Lewis’ drummer Jimmy Van Eaton. He, and Earl Palmer, remained his heroes all through his life and if he had to pick a recorded performance by Little Richard it would be ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ (where incidentally Jimmy Van carries his triplet fill over the bar line to the offbeat of the next bar in the chorus). Another of his heroes was DJ Fontana of whom he said:  “Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black were making good music but it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll until DJ put the backbeat into it”. 

Of course as I said he wasn’t just a drummer by any manner of means – he also played guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, harmonica and violin. 

His musical education began by listening to programmes like ‘The Grand Ole Opry’ and Country Music on the family’s radio. He also listened to all the other (then) current styles of music available like R ‘n’ B,  which ultimately melded the two styles together to become rock ‘n’ roll. Sonny Boy Williamson was one of his earliest influences as was his drummer James ‘Peck’ Curtis. Levon imitated his playing in the early fifties in his High School band – ‘The Jungle Bush Beaters’. 

When he was around 17 he began to play in clubs and bars around Helena where he lived, and he saw Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Bo Diddley and Ronnie Hawkins perform. It was while he was in High School that Ronnie Hawkins asked him to join his band (‘The Hawks’) but Levon’s mother insisted he finished his formal education first. After school he moved more or less immediately to Canada with Ronnie Hawkins who in early 1960 recruited a Canadian line-up. It comprised Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson.  All these guys were multi-instrumentalists but they eventually appropriated the band’s name left Hawkins with it in 1963 and set off  to do their own thing in bars and clubs around Texas, Arkansas and Canada as: ‘Levon and The Hawks’.

In the mid-sixties Bob Dylan angered his protest -music loving fans by switching to electric guitar and he asked The Hawks to back him. By this time they’d become ‘The Crackers’ but eventually they found that name had been left out on a recording contract and simply changed to ‘The Band’. They wisely went along with it.

History shows the new ‘Electric’ Dylan was badly received everywhere and Levon left what he considered a hostile environment after a couple of years while the others toured the world with Bobbie using another drummer. Eventually Levon came back into the fold and ‘The Basement Tapes’ were part of the many tracks that were put down at the time. They all moved to Upstate New York, where Dylan lived in Woodstock and they rehearsed almost daily in a pink house which inevitably gave rise to an album in 1968 called ‘Music from the Big Pink’. (Levon had a house with an attached recording studio in Woodstock and in the fullness of time began to put shows on there with friends and family called ‘The Midnight Ramble’.)

On Thanksgiving Day 1976 Martin Scorsese made a film about The Band at San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom. It was called ‘The Last Waltz’ and in my humble opinion it is a brilliant testament to the calibre of the musicians involved and the time they were living in. But for some reason Levon didn’t like it and once it was finished he disassociated himself from the project and criticised it. 

Eventually ‘The Band’ broke up and Levon did his own thing unsurprisingly called ‘Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars’. RCO was the name of his studio in his Woodstock barn and the band was no less than Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Paul Butterfield and Booker T. Jones.  

The Band were still playing together, albeit without Robbie Robertson, until in 1986 Richard Emmanuel committed suicide while they were on tour which put a stop to their activities.  Levon’s next proper job was with ‘Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band’ which has become something of an institution where he picks up different well-known artists for each tour to sing their own well-known songs and play along with Ringo.  In the Allstars at that time (among others) were Rick Danko, Dr John, Billy Preston and Jim Keltner. 

BTW It was Levon who first coined the phrase “the best seat in the house” for his drum stool because he could see the band and the audience at the same time. 

He was also an accomplished actor, something he claims he got into mostly by accident, in 1988 and his first film was ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ with Sissy Spacek. A couple of years later he was in ‘The Right Stuff’, followed by ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’, ‘The Electric Mist’ and finally ‘The Shooter’.  

In the late nineties Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer and obviously this resulted in a huge problem with his voice. However when the tumour was successfully removed his vocal chords were damaged.  Nonetheless in 2004 he sang again at his own ‘Midnight Ramble’ concert in his recording barn at Woodstock. These rambles were meant to be like the Medicine Shows of Levon’s youth and anybody who was anybody played at them. This was when after struggling with his traditional grip he switched to matched grip and at the same time simplified his playing.     

Another of Levon’s firsts was he was actually playing ‘Americana’ music before it was invented! What was great about him is that all through his years with ‘The Band’ and for quite some time beyond that he played vintage drums - mostly by Ludwig and Gretsch before it was deemed to be hip. Eventually he began to play a decidedly non-vintage Yamaha drum kit. Those old drums though became Levon’s very own signature sound mostly because of the thin shells and wooden hoops.

As far as that signature sound was concerned he wanted his snare to sound fat and warm like Jimmy Van Eaton’s on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’- “a dull thud with lots of wood in it”. He liked his bass drum to be “toned down” and his toms to be muffled “quite a bit”. Those thin shelled, virgin wood-look wooden drums with equally wooden hoops you frequently saw him playing with ‘The Band’ were bought in a pawn shop in LA and Levon somewhat quaintly called the toms ''tenor'' and ''baritone''! He called the whole set his ‘hybrid’ because it had Gretsch toms, a Ludwig bass and snare and always Zildjian cymbals.

Levon was completely self-taught and never had formal lessons on any instrument saying: “Well I’ve had all the lessons I could get. I’ve learned from everyone I’ve ever met!”  He’s on record saying: “I would like to have been able to read music better because it makes you quicker”. 

The Bands’ music has been described as no frills rock ‘n’ roll but far from simplistic and, if you ask me to pick out a favourite Levon Helm track I’m afraid I don’t have one – they’re all great! The quickest way to get to get to the essence of the man is to check-out (whether he likes it or not) Scorsese’s ‘The Last Waltz’ and concentrate on everything he does!  Try playing along, it’s as difficult as singing along to Frank Sinatra and trying to synchronise your words with his!

He continued to make award-winning records until his sad death from cancer at 1.30 pm in New York on April 19th, 2012. 

To sum up, as I said ostensibly Levon’s playing was what most drummers strive for - simple but effective drumming which supports the music.  He was very much an advocate of less is more and to quote him, he said: “It ain''t what you play – it’s what you don’t play and leave out. 

Amen Levon!

Bob Henrit

March 2016

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