Lavon Helm helped bring a sincere and rootsy focus to rock 'n' roll.
As the psychedelic ‘60s started waning, rock ‘n’ roll needed a respite from the Sturm und Drang of the acid-rock era, and The Band was there to help point the way towards a more modest, undeniably American sound. While they had one main songwriter in Robbie Robertson, and three lead singers, including bassist Rick Danko and keyboardist Richard Manuel, it was Levon Helm’s raw Arkansas twang – not to mention his loose-limbed drumming – that kept The Band honest.
The predominantly Canadian group’s lone Yankee, born Mark Lavon Helm in 1940, first worked with Danko, Manuel, Robertson, and organist/sax player Garth Hudson under the name The Hawks, sidemen for second-string rockabilly shouter Ronnie Hawkins. By the mid-‘60s, they’d traded up from Hawkins to Bob Dylan beginning an association that would find them backing Dylan for some of his earliest electrified outings and contributing to his Basement Tapes and Planet Waves albums. In 1968, they met the world on their own terms as The Band, with Music From Big Pink. While Danko and Manuel had their turns in the spotlight on The Band’s albums with tunes like “It Makes No Difference” and “The Shape I’m In,” it was the Southern soul in Helm’s vocals on such songs as “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that gave the music it’s most visceral impact.
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz documented The Band’s star-studded final show, on Thanksgiving of 1976. Helm went solo shortly afterwards, and his group kept Band fans afloat until he got back together with Danko, Hudson, and Manuel in 1983. As Helm’s 1993 memoir, This Wheel’s On Fire, made clear, there was no love lost between him and Robertson. Helm continued on with the band until Danko’s passing in 1999 (Manuel had committed suicide 13 years earlier).
Having beaten cancer, Levon kickstarted his solo career again in the new millennium, earning three Grammys in the process, and the Midnight Rambles showcases he put on at his barn became the stuff of legend, with tons of high-profile guests sharing the spotlight. On April 19, the cancer we all thought he’d overcome returned to take Levon’s life, but it could not quell the spirits stirred by his music. Sample some of Helm's best works from throughout his career on Google Play.–Jim Allen, Google Play