A Tribute to Levon Helm-Rare Video 1959-2011

Wednesday, 25 April 2012 05:40 AM Written by 

From the time I heard the first verse of "The Weight" on the Band's debut album Music From Big Pink in 1968, Levon Helm was one of my favorite drummers and vocalists of all time. Percussion-wise, he had the natural feel of someone who grew up in the Arkansas Delta, the kind of feel a lot of rock drummers spent their whole lives trying to get and not quite achieving.  Vocally, he was just as natural.  He had the easy-flowing feel of a Hank Williams, Johnny Mercer or Ray Charles. That magnificent twang was always present, whether he sang an original, a Band favorite or a rock or R&B chestnut.   Believe me, he could do it all.  Following the Band's 1976 breakup, Helm didn't drop a beat.  For the next 35  years, he'd lead his his own groups and later work with a Robertson-free reunited Band, producing the Grammy-winning 2009 album Electric Dirt. Over 52 years, Helm produced a dazzling, moving body of work. Here's some selected and often rare video to prove it. .

We start at the beginning, in 1959, when Levon, an Arkansas native, was drumming in the Hawks, backup band for his fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins, who was working in Canada. This performance is from some early Canadian teen rock and roll show similar to American Bandstand. Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, all Canadian, hadn't yet joined.  This particular version of the Hawks behind Hawkins is Levon, guitarist Jimmy Ray Paulman and on piano, Pop Jones.  Of course, it's lip-synched, like most teen dance shows.  It's partial, just 36 seconds, but it's definitely seldom seen.

This is a 1961 recording of the old blues "Further On Up the Road" by the Hawks (minus Ronnie) with a Levon handling the vocal.  Robertson is playing guitar and Rick Danko had joined on bass. Saxophonist is Jerry Penfound.

Next, a rarity: the Band performing "Up On Cripple Creek" in 1969, interrupted only once by Grace Slick's voiceover (it was some sort of documentary) showing the group in some sort of rehearsal hall.  You have to understand how different their sound was at the time—all the psychedelia of that time (which I was already getting mightily tired of) and something this funky and natural—country without spangly suits and steel guitar.

This, friends, was where Americana truly began.  At least where I think it did.

Oh and if you're wondering why nothing from the farewell concert The Last Waltz, it's because I considered the film pretentious at the time and my mind hasn't changed.  Levon wasn't crazy about it, either.

Levon did occasional dramatic roles as he became better known. The most notable: portraying Ted Webb, the nasty, abusive backwoods Kentucky father of Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek, who won an Oscar for her performance) in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner's Daughter.

Levon's performance of "Sweet Peach Georgia Wine" comes from a 1981 episode of the classic SCTV, working with the Cate Brothers:  Ernie, keyboard, Earl, guitar, bassist Ron Eoff and second drummer Terry Cagle.  Helm and the Cates worked into one of the show's brilliant sketches, with American Pie's Eugene Levy playing his frequent SCTV role of the hapless, terminally moronic Melonville newsman Earl Camembert.

Levon with Max Weinberg from Late Night With Conan O'Brien circa 1993, singing the classic Larry Williams R&B favorite "Short Fat Fanny."  Afterward, he sits at the desk with Conan for an interview. Take note of O'Brien's actual knowledge of rockabilly. He's not just reading prepared questions from index cards.  These are real questions.

This was the reconstituted, post-Robertson Band with Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and new guitarist Jim Weider (Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986) from the Late Show with David Letterman, January 3, 1995.  Joining them was Letterman's own band, led by Paul Shaffer. Note Shaffer playing accordion and bassist Will Lee singing a verse.

Helm should have been finished when he underwent throat cancer surgery in 1998. His voice was saved and though weaker, he was able to resume his active performing and recording career and if the voice had less kick, the soulfulness and twang remained intact. 

We'll finish with this deeply moving performance of another Electric Dirt selection:  "Anna Lee" from the 2011 "Ramble at the Ryman." He's joiend by daughter Amy Helm, Allison Krauss and on fiddle, Larry Campbell.

Levon Helm was one of the greats of American music. He is irreplaceable. We're lucky to have so much music--and video gems like these.


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