If you don’t know the name, go to YouTube and listen to ‘The Weight’, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ and ‘The River Hymn’. That’s just prime-era Band songs.
He won Grammy’s for his last two records in 2007 and 2010. Listen to ‘The Mountain’ and ‘A Train Robbery’ if you want a taste of those. He was also a respected actor, most memorably as Loretta Lynn’s father in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’
Levon Helm’s family posted the following notice on Facebook a little past 4 yesterday, followed this afternoon by the announcement of his death:
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey. …
Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration… he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage…
We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy
Levon was one of the pillars of a kind of music I’ve loved most of my adult life. It’s handmade music, stuff that sounds a bit rough, a bit messy. Nobody auto-tuned Levon’s (or Rick’s or Richard’s) vocals. With The Band, the pitch could get wobbly, the timing a little funny (particularly when Richard was drumming – the strangest drummer ever preserved on tape) and the harmonies were whatever they could sing. But the songs had an authenticity and heart you can’t fake. You hear lots of singers who learned from Levon’s singing but few that sound like they grew up that way. And he was a totally unique drummer, not a studio guy, not ‘versatile’ – if Levon was playing on your track, it was going to sound like Levon, because he had his way and that was it.
He was also an innovator. Not just by starting his career over after the first bout with throat cancer (both of the Grammy-winning albums in the 2000’s came after) but also with the Midnight Ramble, a series of concerts with a great band at his home studio in Woodstock.
The place fits about 300 (they added standing room recently); you show up with food for pot luck, eat with members of the band and then get a concert. People like Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Dr. John show up to play on an evening and, unlike so many heavily-hyped evenings we can all remember, seem to be having as good a time as the audience.
Levon was, as he would say himself, a full dose. He refused to do Dylan’s first electric tour with the rest of the group because he didn’t feel like getting things thrown at him. He certainly was never anybody’s idea of an angel. He was ornery and held a grudge against Robbie Robertson (who he felt took credit for songs he co-wrote) long after there ceased to be any point to it. But that was Levon too.
If you watch ‘The Last Waltz,’ you can see Robbie stretching the stories, inventing legends for himself and the others. Levon told stories just as juicy and maybe he was stretching just as hard – who can say anymore? – but you can’t tell. He just seemed the natural embodiment of that old saying about meaning what you say and saying what you mean.
None of us knows how much longer we’ll be around. All we can control is who we are. Levon never even tried to be perfect but he was always a man. Good luck in the next adventure, Levon. We should all do as well.
(This is a revision of a story originally posted 4/17/2012)