[Note: song titles without links can now be heard streaming on the HOTG webcast.]
Sadly, I note the passing of Levon Helm, Arkansas-born drummer and singer, who was the lone US citizen in a group of expatriate Canadians.known as the Band, whose first two albums, recorded and released in this country in the late 1960s, established them as the definitive American roots rock band, before the term actually existed. In my low-rent opinion, if you know anything at all about New Orleans music, you can’t help but hear the city’s fundamental early rock ‘n’ roll and R&B influences in their playing. Both Levon and his partners have acknowledged as much in various ways, including doing covers of Fats Domino, Frogman Henry, and Lee Dorsey hits on their Moondog Matinee LP, as well as working with Allen Toussaint and Dr John over the years.
Levon gave more direct props in a 2008 Modern Drummer interview with fellow drummer Steve Jordan, making clear he knew who was responsible for the game-changing mixed beats on the seminal hits of early rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what Earl [Palmer] taught us. He would do it in the same song. . . .play the shuffle [against] the straight 8th. I kind of copied from Earl, I’m sure.
Early in 1966, when I was in high school, I saw Bob Dylan play a concert in Memphis, right before his Blonde On Blonde LP was released. After doing a long solo acoustic set, he brought out his band, who he introduced as the Hawks, to join him for a mind-blowing, rocking electric set, which was still considered a controversial, almost sacrilegious, act to folk music purists of the day; but I didn't have a problem with it, nor did most of the rest of the crowd that night. As I would later learn, a few years prior to their association with Dylan, the Hawks - Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm - had been seasoned on the road, backing gonzo rock ‘n’ roller Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas native who relocated to Canada in the late 1950s. Levon had met Hawkins down home and started drumming for him in 1957, three or four years before the other four became Hawks in the early 60s.
As Rob Bowman recounted in his 1991 feature on the Band for Goldmine, after Hawkins took on Robertson et al in Canada one by one during 1960-1961 as replacements for departing members, they did some recording with him and stayed on the road above and below the US border for several years playing bars, clubs, and roadhouses, and becoming a tight, killer rock 'n' roll unit. Underpaid and micromanaged by their boss, they parted ways with Hawkins and continued successfully playing circuits in Canada and the South as Levon and the Hawks, even recording a couple of singles. No longer confined by Hawkins' repertoire, they began incorporating much more R&B into their sets.
An associate recommended the Hawks to Dylan, who took them out on a long tour in 1966, with dates in the US, Europe and Australia . When I saw the Memphis show, the Hawks still had short, slicked back hair and were wearing matching suits; but what I did not realize until just recently was that Levon might not have been playing with them then, having dropped out of the band, tired of getting booed almost nightly by those who didn’t want Dylan to actually change with the times.
During his hiatus from the road, Levon wound up working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile the rest of the group followed Dylan to Woodstock , New York, settled in there, and did a lot of informal home recording with him for a couple of years, the results of which were frequently bootlegged until The Basement Tapes were released in 1975. The band, soon to capitalize their "B", summoned Levon back in 1968, when they got a recording contract with Capitol and a large advance, and prepared to make their first album together. I doubt it would have been the same without him.
Somewhere, I read that a number of the colorful stories Levon would tell about his life inspired images, places, and characters that chief writer and guitarist Robertson incorporated into his impressive, timeless songs for the group. On their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, where the bulk of their best work is concentrated, and over the course of the next decade, they channeled all of their collectively absorbed musical influences into a synthesis of rootsy styles firmly planted in the cultural soil of the US South. As great as the other members were, Levon helped to authenticate and ground the group with his primal, funky, in the pocket grooves and earthy vocals.
After fighting throat cancer (damn cigarettes) for over a decade, Levon left this world this past Thursday, the 19th. He was 71. For more detail on his remarkable life and career, start with the obituary by Jon Pareles’ in the New York Times, linked above, and proceed to the link to the Levon's website; and don't miss the Band's very well done site, also linked nearby. He also penned an autobiography in 1993, This Wheel’s On Fire; and, then, of course, there’s the music.....
I’ve got just a few of examples of his playing and singing out of so many; and the first two point more or less directly to New Orleans influences. Fans should be well aware of them already; but, if you’re not all that familiar, dig in and then do yourself a favor, seek out more. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Levon was the real deal, as were The Band.
“Rag Mama Rag” (J. R. Robertson)
The Band, Capitol 3433, 1972
Both sides of this single were spun off of the Band’s live LP, Rock Of Ages, taken from a series of concerts they did at the Academy of Music in New York City at the end of 1971. For the shows, they brought in a horn section and called on Allen Toussaint to write the arrangements, since he had done so well with the horn charts for their song “Life Is A Carnival”, released on the Cahoots LP and as a single earlier that year. Combined with the group’s organically funky feel, Toussaint’s musical sensibilities brought a celebratory synergy to the performances.
The original version of “Rag Mama Rag” appeared on their eponymous second album and had the same rambunctious feel, but a more stripped down presentation. In the context of the concert setting, that spirit was intensified when the non-New Orleans horn players responded to Toussaint’s challenge to bring a buck jumping brass band feel to the party, Howard Johnson’s syncopated tuba pumping being particularly effective. What made the Band great was that they never got slick or allowed studio work and playing big venues to refine away their loose, vital, down home, bar band sound (just listen to the barely controlled chaos of Garth Hudson’s piano solo that ends the song) or smooth out the unaffected character in their voices.
According to Bill from Pittsburgh in the comments to this post, the Band's instrumentation on this track showed their flexibility, with Hudson, as noted, on piano, since Richard Manuel played drums, and Levon was on mandolin. Rick Danko played fiddle, and Robbie Robertson remained on guitar. Toussaint, by the way, also directed the horn section on the shows.
After the group broke up in drug and alcohol-fueled acrimony over money and other issues in 1976, Levon went on to have a distinguished solo career as a performer, recording artist, and actor. His first solo release, Levon Helm and the RCO Allstars, came together in 1977, an aptly named aggregation of outstanding players recorded at his own RCO Studios in Woodstock and Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, California. Joining Levon as the rhythm section were Booker T. & the MGs’ Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Booker T. Jones. Other players included blues harmonica giant Paul Butterfield, guitarist Fred Carter, Jr, and, for the New Orleans flavor, Mac Rebennack on keyboards and guitar, who also contributed several songs.
“Sing, Sing, Sing” (Earl King)
from Levon Helm & the RCO Allstars, 1977, ABC
I’m sure Mac was responsible for Levon doing this fine cover of Earl King’s classic ode to making the world a better place, and it fit the signer’s genuine spirit perfectly. Howard Johnson once again took to the tuba for this number; and two of Levon’s former bandmates sat in, Robertson on guitar, and Hudson on accordion.
A bluesy, soulful, but somewhat laid-back record, it never found its audience, stalling-out well below the Hot 100 in the charts, and remains under-appreciated to this day.
His second LP fared even worse, as it was less well-focused in the choice of material.
from Levon Helm, 1978, ABC
Indulge me on this one, as it really has nothing to do with New Orleans (definitely no mountains around). It’s a bit of reggae-fied Ozark soul-funk written by Earl and Ernie Cate (that’s them singing back-up), twin leaders of one of the South’s great blue-eyed R&B outfits, the Cate Brothers Band, who I got to see play many times over the years in Memphis. From the Fayetteville, Arkansas area in the western part of the state, the Cates were heavily influenced by Ronnie Hawkins in their youth and knew Levon and the rest of the Hawks, who were around their age, as their respective bands played the same Arkansas area club circuit. When Levon left the Dylan tour, he even picked up a few gigs drumming for the Cates before going offshore to work.
This song appeared on the brothers’ self-titled first LP from 1975, and Levon played drums on that track. Besides covering it later on his album, Levon also toured with the Cate Brothers Band backing him in the early 1980s; and, when he reformed the Band in 1983, the core of the Cates’ group briefly served as a kind of second rhythm section for them.
Duck Dunn produced the Levon Helm album, which was recorded in LA and Muscle Shoals; and it had a host of fine players. Other tracks of note include a good-feeling cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” and a decent but rather undynamic take on Toussaint’s “Play Something Sweet”. By the way, the photo is of my picture-disc promo copy of the LP, which I picked up used many years back. Don't see 'em much.
I was fortunate enough to get to see these guys again as the Band play live in Memphis early in the 1970s. Robbie Robertson was so ill (the flu, as I recall) that he just stood in one spot and played guitar staring straight ahead. They still cooked, but it was a short set with no encores, as I recall. That’s showbiz. Around the turn of the century, Levon opened a club that bore his name on Decatur Street in the French Quarter; and I got to see a great Irma Thomas show there one night; but never Levon on his own. Due to his illness, he was unable to sing at the time; and his financial backer pulled out after a just a few months, shutting the place down. Way too bad. Levon and New Orleans would have worked well together. . .You can just hear it.