Born in Arkansas in 1940, Levon Helm grew up in Marvell, Arkansas. He started his musical career performing with his sister Linda. In 1957, Helm joined Ronnie Hawkins's band, and through Hawkins he met the future members of The Band. Following the release of Music from Big Pink in 1968, The Band became one of the most influential groups of the era. Later in his life, Helm worked on such solo projects as Dirt Farmer (2007). He died on April 19, 2012, in New York City.
The son of an Arkansas farmer, Levon Helm was born Mark Lavon Helm on May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Arkansas. Helm grew up listening to the varied musical styles of the Mississippi Delta region. These sounds, ranging from country to R&B to early rock and roll to the blues, greatly influenced his work in his legendary group The Band and as a solo artist.
Helm got his first guitar at the age of 9, just one of many instruments he would learn to play. Before long, he was performing with his sister Linda. Helm started up his first rock group, the Jungle Bush Beaters, while in high school. In 1957, he joined Ronnie Hawkins's band as his drummer. The group ended up in Canada, where new musicians eventually signed on—Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel on piano, Garth Hudson on organ and Robbie Robertson on guitar. Helms and his fellow backing musicians later split off from Hawkins, becoming Levon & the Hawks and then the Hawks.
In 1965, Helm and his bandmates met folk singer Bob Dylan, who hired them as backing musicians for his U.S. tour. Dylan's fans loathed these performances, objecting to the singer's abandoning of the acoustic sound of traditional folk for electrified instruments. Frustrated by the jeering crowds, Helm returned home to Arkansas for a time.
In 1967, Helms rejoined his bandmates in West Saugerties, New York. They were living in a big pink rented house together while Dylan recovered from a motorcycle accident in nearby Woodstock. The group, who soon started calling themselves The Band, began to create and record their own songs. These sessions produced their debut album, Music from Big Pink (1968), named after their place of residence. The recording featured a remarkable blend of styles—country, folk, rock and blues—and produced a sound that was both modern and traditional.
These five performers often shared or alternated on the group's vocals, and Helm lent his distinctive Southern twang to several notable songs. He, with Danko and Manuel, sang the ballad, "The Weight," on Music from Big Pink, which became one of their best-known songs. For their 1969 self-titled follow-up album, Helms gave voice to the story of Confederate heartbreak in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
The Band continued to perform and record over the next few years, but tensions were growing within the group. Helm reportedly became frustrated with how the songs were credited, believing guitarist Robertson took sole ownership of works that were collaborative efforts. And Robertson tired of touring. The Band had one final hurrah in 1976, in a concert known as The Last Waltz. The show was all-star affair with appearances by Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others. Filmed by Martin Scorsese, a film of the concert debuted two years later. Helm reportedly felt that the movie focused more on Robertson, and it proved to be the final straw for Helm and Robertson. Helm didn't speak to Robertson for years after the concert film's release.
In the early 1980s, Helm reformed The Band without Robertson. They toured and recorded together, but they failed to recapture their early musical magic. The original members were all inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, but Helm refused to attend the ceremony.
Outside of The Band, Helm had some success as an actor. He appeared in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter, playing the singer's father. In 1983, Helm had a role in the space drama The Right Stuff (1983).
In 1998, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. He was unable to talk above a whisper for some time, but he eventually regained some of his voice. Over the next few years, Helm found himself in financial hot water. In 2004, Helm launched a series of concerts called Midnight Rambles as a personal fundraising effort. These events, which featured such guests as Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson, were held at his barn-studio on his property in Woodstock, New York.
With a raspier edge to his voice, Helm returned to making albums. He enjoyed critical acclaim with 2007's Dirt Farmer and 2009's Electric Dirt, both of which won Grammy Awards. In February 2012, Helm took home his final Grammy Award for Best Americana Album for Ramble at the Ryman. This live recording captured one of Helm's famous Ramble shows performed at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
That April, Helm's family announced that the legendary performer was losing his battle with cancer. His wife Sandy and daughter Amy wrote a thank you to his fans who made "his life so filled with joy and celebration." They said that Helm "loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat and make the people dance!"
Levon Helm died on April 19, 2012, at a New York City hospital. He was 71. With his passing, the music world lost one of its most distinctive performers. As one critic wrote, "Helm had a voice like no other in rock music: definitively Southern, soulful and gritty, an oak-barreled whiskey that sometimes went down with a fiery kick."
Before his death, Helm had reconciled with former bandmate Robbie Robertson. Robertson had visited with Helm in the hospital. After Helm's death, Robertson released a statement, saying "Levon is one of the most extraordinary, talented people I've ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time."
After Helm's death, other musicians sought to continue his musical legacy through an effort called "Keep It Goin.'" Roger Waters, Gregg Allman, John Prine and many others staged a special concert called "Love for Levon" in October 2012. It was a fundraising event to save Helm's beloved barn. Helm's estate also continues to operate his studio and his beloved Midnight Rambles also continue.
Helm's legacy is also being carried on by his own daughter. A talented recording artist in her own right, Amy Helm led the Midnight Rambles Band at a tribute fundraiser held at SXSW music festival in March 2013.
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