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, 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.
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.