Levon Helm Biography

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Mark Lavon Helm, 26 May 1940, Marvell, Arkansas, USA. Helm is best known as the drummer and a singer with the Band, one of North America’s greatest and most fondly remembered rock groups. Raised on a farm in rural Arkansas, Helm learned to play guitar and drums as a young child, and formed his first group, the Jungle Bush Beaters, while still in high school. He played with Conway Twitty before joining rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and relocating to Toronto, Canada. Helm and Hawkins were soon joined by fledgling Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, developing into a tight club unit known as Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks. When the five musicians left Hawkins, they began playing the bars and clubs in their own right and recorded two singles for Atlantic Records as Levon And The Hawks (they were also known as the Canadian Squires for a brief period).

In 1965, Bob Dylan invited Levon And The Hawks to accompany him on concert dates, playing his controversial new ‘electric’ rock songs. The Hawks enhanced Dylan’s work, but the audience’s hostile reaction to the singer’s new sound was too much for Helm who returned to Arkansas and quit the music business. In 1967, he was persuaded to renege on his decision by his former colleagues who by now had begun recording their own material as the Band. Their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, feature American music at its best and encompass many styles, little of which could have been predicted before they met Dylan. Helm’s intense vocals were featured to great effect on classic tracks such as ‘The Weight’, ‘Rag Mama Rag’, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, and ‘Jemima Surrender’.

When the Band split up for the first time in the late 70s, Helm, who had developed into an fine, intense vocalist, made solo albums and took acting roles. He was brilliantly cast as Loretta Lynn’s father in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter and, after recording ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ for the soundtrack album, he used the same musicians for a country album, American Son. Helm played good ol’ boys in several other films and was also featured as Jesse James on the concept albumThe Legend Of Jesse James. The Band reunited in 1982 minus main songwriter Robertson, and continued to perform until Manuel’s untimely death in 1986. A more permanent reunion took place in 1991, with Jim Weider, Randy Ciarlante and Richard Bell replacing Manuel and the still absent Robertson. The new line-up of the Band recorded three respectable studio albums in the 90s, during which time Helm also featured as a drummer in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. In 1993, Helm published his no-holds-barred autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, which made clear his ongoing grudge against Robertson for pulling the plug on the Band in the 70s.

The death of Rick Danko in 1999 and the ravaging of Helm’s voice by throat cancer persuaded the surviving members of the Band to finally lay the group to rest. The ebullient Helm bounced back in the new millennium, playing the drums alongside his daughter Amy in his new blues band the Barnburners. He released several live albums through his own website and then revealed that he was back to near full-vocal capacity on the wonderful roots collection Dirt Farmer (2007).

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.