Friday, April 20, 2012

RIP Levon Helm

Ralph Rosen, Media Center Manager and a drummer himself, is our guest blogger for this post.

On April 19 we lost one of the great talents of American Music. Levon Helm passed away due to the throat cancer that he’d been battling since the late 1990s. He was one of the finest singers and drummers of his generation. He was known for his membership in he Band, a group that created a fusion of American roots music in a way that revolutionized how we hear these various influences.

A native of Arkansas, music was a common activity in his family with both parents singing and encouraging Levon and his sister to do the same. He started to play guitar at eight years old. Growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he witnessed at first hand the important pre-rock performers such as bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson and bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. He was on hand at early performances by such rockers as Elvis Presley and Bo Diddley. He built a washtub bass for his sister Linda and they performed locally as a duo. By this time he was also playing drums and joined Ronnie Hawkins’s band upon graduating high school.

Hawkins took the band to Canada because he felt the work opportunities were greater than in the states. Eventually the band consisted of Levon, Ronnie Hawkins and three Canadian players. They worked consistently until 1963 when they decided to perform without Hawkins calling themselves Levon and the Hawks. Bob Dylan chose them to work with him when he first started to perform with a full band. Eventually the Hawks called themselves the Band and released 7 studio albums from 1968 until their breakup in 1976.

Levon Helm continued with his own projects including the reunited Band in the 1980s. After the death of beloved Band member Richard Manuel, the group continued with three more studio albums. Helm instituted a series of concerts called the Midnight Ramble at a barn attached to his home in Woodstock, NY.

Speaking personally, I was lucky enough to perform (on his drum kit!) at one of the Rambles. I was invited to attend them several times afterwards, each time meeting and talking with Levon. I found him to be a humble, warm and very funny guy. As a drummer myself, it was always great to watch his unique style up close. He will always be one of my favorite musicians. There’ll never be another like him!

Highlights of Helm's work in our collection:
as a sideman:
  • The Hallmark Sessions (Lenny Breau) (CD 29272)
  • The Roulette Years (Ronnie Hawkins) (CD 4122-4123)
  • Diamond Jubilation (the Dixie Hummingbirds) (CD 22874)

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