From left, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson of the Band in Woodstock, N.Y. More Photos »
Levon Helm, Drummer and Rough-Throated Singer for the Band, Dies at 71
By JON PARELES
Published: April 19, 2012
In Mr. Helm’s drumming, muscle, swing, economy and finesse were inseparably merged. His voice held the bluesy, weathered and resilient essence of his Arkansas upbringing in the Mississippi Delta.
Mr. Helm was the American linchpin of the otherwise Canadian group that became Bob Dylan’s backup band and then the Band. Its own songs, largely written by the Band’s guitarist, Jaime Robbie Robertson, and pianist, Richard Manuel, spring from roadhouse, church, backwoods, river and farm; they are rock-ribbed with history and tradition yet hauntingly surreal.
After the Band broke up in 1976, Mr. Helm continued to perform at every opportunity, working with a partly reunited Band and leading his own groups. He also acted in films, notably “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980). In the 2000s he became a roots-music patriarch, turning his barn in Woodstock — which had been a recording studio since 1975 — into the home of down-home, eclectic concerts called Midnight Rambles, which led to tours and Grammy-winning albums.
Mr. Helm gave his drums a muffled, bottom-heavy sound that placed them in the foundation of the arrangements, and his tom-toms were tuned so that their pitch would bend downward as the tone faded. Mr. Helm didn’t call attention to himself. Three bass-drum thumps at the start of one of the Band’s anthems, “The Weight,” were all that he needed to establish the song’s gravity.
His playing served the song. In “The Shape I’m In,” he juxtaposed Memphis soul, New Orleans rumba and military tattoo. But while it was tersely responsive to the music, the drumming also had an improvisational feel.
In the Band, lead vocals changed from song to song and sometimes within songs, and harmonies were elaborately communal. But particularly when lyrics turned to myths and tall tales of the American South — like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag” — the lead went to Mr. Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time.
In a 1984 interview with Modern Drummer magazine, Mr. Helm described the “right ingredients” for his work in music and film as “life and breath, heart and soul.”
Mark Lavon Helm was born on May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Ark., the son of a cotton farmer with land near Turkey Scratch, Ark. In his 1993 autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band,“ written with Stephen Davis, Mr. Helm said he was part Chickasaw Indian through his paternal grandmother. He grew up hearing live bluegrass, Delta blues, country and the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll; Memphis was just across the river.
His father gave him a guitar when he was 9, and he soon started performing: in a duo with his sister Linda and in a high school rock ‘n’ roll band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. He also played drums in the Marvell High School band.
Mr. Helm was in 11th grade when the Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins hired him as a drummer. He traveled with Mr. Hawkins to Canada, where the shows paid better, and Mr. Hawkins settled there and formed a band. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks played six nights a week in Ontario and had a number of hit singles, like “Mary Lou.” They performed on Dick Clark’s TV show “American Bandstand.”
By 1961 Mr. Hawkins had assembled the lineup that would become the Band: Mr. Helm, Mr. Robertson, Mr. Manuel, Rick Danko on bass and Garth Hudson on organ. “He knew what musicians had the fire,” Mr. Helm said of Mr. Hawkins. The others had trouble pronouncing Lavon, so Mr. Helm began calling himself Levon.
In 1963, weary of Mr. Hawkins’s discipline, the five Hawks started their own bar-band career as Levon and the Hawks. The blues singer John Hammond Jr. heard them in Toronto and brought Mr. Robertson, Mr. Hudson and Mr. Helm into the studio in 1964 to back him on the album “So Many Roads.”
Bob Dylan had famously brought an electric band to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and after its members had made other commitments, he hired Mr. Robertson and Mr. Helm for a summer tour.
At their first rehearsals, Mr. Helm recalled, his reaction to Mr. Dylan was, “I couldn’t believe how many words this guy had in his music, or how he remembered them all.” Before playing their first show, at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, Mr. Dylan told the band, “Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets.”
They polarized the audience — those wanting to hear only Dylan’s folk music booed — and while a subsequent concert at the Hollywood Bowl was better received, another band member, the keyboardist Al Kooper, chose to leave. At that point Mr. Helm told Albert Grossman, Mr. Dylan’s manager, “Take us all, or don’t take anybody.” The Hawks became Mr. Dylan’s band.
They backed Mr. Dylan on a studio single, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?,” and toured with him through the fall, still getting booed. Mr. Helm quit the band late in 1965. “I wasn’t made to be booed,“ he wrote.
Mr. Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966 ended his touring with the Hawks. While he recuperated in Woodstock the Hawks, who were on retainer, rented a big pink house in a neighboring town, West Saugerties, for $125 a month. For most of 1967 the Hawks, with Mr. Manuel playing drums, worked five days a week on music: writing songs with and without Mr. Dylan, playing them at his home and at the house they called Big Pink, and recording them on a two-track tape recorder in the basement. Songs sent to Mr. Dylan’s publisher were soon bootlegged.
In the winter of 1967, the band summoned Mr. Helm to rejoin them. With Mr. Manuel on drums, Mr. Helm picked up mandolin, though he would soon return to drums.
Mr. Grossman got the Hawks their own recording contract with Capitol in February 1968, initially as the Crackers, a name Capitol didn’t like. There was no band name on the LP label or front cover of “Music From Big Pink,” the group’s debut album, which simply had a painting by Mr. Dylan as its cover. (The songs had been written at Big Pink but recorded in professional studios.) The LP label listed all the musicians’ names, while inside the double-fold cover the musicians were listed under the words “The Band.” “The name of the group is just our Christian names,” Mr. Robertson insisted in an interview. But the band became the Band.
Released on July 1, 1968, a year after the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Music From Big Pink” was “rebelling against the rebellion,” Mr. Helm wrote. There were no elaborate studio confections, no psychedelic jams, no gimmicks; the music was stately and homespun, with a deliberately old-time tone behind the enigmatic lyrics. Sales were modest, but the album’s influence was huge, leading musicians like Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead back toward concision. The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Adding to its mystique, the Band didn’t tour until 1969 because Mr. Danko broke his neck in an auto accident. It made its concert debut as the Band at Winterland in San Francisco in April 1969.
By then, the Band was well into recording its second album, simply titled “The Band,” which would include the group’s only Top 30 single, “Up on Cripple Creek.” The album was universally hailed, and the Band played a summer of huge pop festivals, backing Mr. Dylan at the Isle of Wight and performing in August at Woodstock. In 1970, Mr. Helm and the songwriter Libby Titus had a daughter, Amy Helm, now a member of the band Ollabelle; she survives him, along with his wife since 1981, the former Sandra Dodd, and two grandchildren.
The Band would never match its two initial masterpieces. By the time the group started recording its 1970 album, “Stage Fright,” members were drinking heavily and using heroin, and there were disputes over songwriting credits and publishing royalties, of which Mr. Robertson had by far the greatest share. The collaborative spirit of the first two albums was disappearing. But the Band’s career had momentum; it produced several more studio albums, toured internationally, and a live album, “Rock of Ages,” reached the Top 10 in 1972. In 1973, the Band, the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers were the triple bill for the Watkins Glen festival, which drew 600,000 people to upstate New York — larger than Woodstock. In 1974, the Band made an album with Mr. Dylan, “Planet Waves,” and toured with him. “The Basement Tapes,” a collection of songs with and without Mr. Dylan from the Big Pink era, was released in 1975.
In September 1976, Mr. Robertson decided to declare the end of the Band’s touring career with a grand finale: “The Last Waltz,” an all-star concert at Winterland on Thanksgiving 1976. Recorded for an album, it was also filmed by Martin Scorsese and released under the same title. Mr. Helm hated the film, believing that it glorified Mr. Robertson and slighted the rest of the Band. After “The Last Waltz,” the original Band lineup returned to the studio for one last album, the desultory “Islands,” which completed its Capitol contract.
Mr. Helm had already embarked on a solo career. He also branched out into acting, playing Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” as well as roles in “The Right Stuff” and in a television movie with Jane Fonda, “The Dollmaker.”
But Mr. Helm wanted above all to be a working musician. In the early 1980s he toured with his fellow Band members, minus Mr. Robertson. They were on the road in 1986 when Mr. Manuel committed suicide at 42. But Mr. Helm, Mr. Danko and Mr. Hudson continued to work together as the Band, with additional musicians and songwriters, releasing three albums during the 1990s. Mr. Danko died in 1999 at 55. Meanwhile, Mr. Helm’s barn studio became a hub for musicians from Woodstock and beyond, often with Mr. Helm and Mr. Hudson sitting in. Mr. Helm, a heavy smoker, contracted throat cancer in the late 1990s, and for months he could not speak above a whisper. A tumor was removed from his vocal cords, and he underwent 28 radiation treatments. Medical bills threatened him with the loss of his home. Partly to raise money, he began hosting the Midnight Rambles at his barn in 2004. More house parties than concerts, they featured unannounced guest stars and a band of his own that delved into Americana as well as the Band catalog.
His voice strengthened, and the core of his Midnight Ramble bands became a touring and recording group; it performed in 2009 at the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival on its site in Bethel, N.Y., although Mr. Helm was unable to sing that night. Mr. Helm’s 2007 and 2009 studio albums, “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt,” won Grammy Awards, as did his 2011 “Ramble at the Ryman,” recorded live in Nashville and broadcast on PBS.
Nearly to the end, Mr. Helm spent his life on the bandstand. “If it doesn’t come from your heart,” he wrote, “music just doesn’t work.”
A version of this article appeared in print on April 20, 2012, on page B10 of the New York edition with the headline: Levon Helm, Drummer and Rough-Throated Singer for the Band, Is Dead at 71..