He was born Mark Lavon Helm on May 26, 1940, but for most of his professional career, he was known simply as Levon, the folksy yet soulful singer who also supplied the solid backbeat for the Band, the group that helped Bob Dylan ease his transition into rock 'n' roll and later defined the template for Americana rock music. When he died on April 19, 2012, he left behind a legacy that will forever loom large in the annals of roots rock and the true sounds of the heartland. His signature songs -- "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Ophelia," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" -- not only defined the Band but also his own signature sound, one that was honest, forthright, and flush with both humility and humanity.
Helm grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, the son of cotton farmers and music lovers who encouraged their children to play and sing. Consequently, he picked up guitar at age 6 and later learned drums. It was after catching a performance by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe that he decided he'd become a musician.
Impacted by the amalgam of country, blues, bluegrass, R&B, and early tock 'n' roll that was so predominant in the American South circa the '40s and '50s, Helm integrated these influences into his playing style. His first major gig was with Robert Lockwood Jr.'s blues band prior to forming his own group, the Jungle Bush Beaters, while still in high school.
Following his graduation, he joined the Hawks, the backup band for rockabilly legend and fellow Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins. The band later went out on its own, recorded a few singles, and relocated to Toronto, giving Helm the distinction of being the only American in a bar band that was otherwise made up of Canadians. Being that his bandmates had trouble pronouncing his name "Lavon," they began calling him "Levon," and for a short time, the band became known as Levon and the Hawks.
In the mid-'60s, Dylan recruited the Hawks as his official backing band and took them out on the road to play his new electric music for the masses. The infamously hostile reaction they got in response prompted Helm to leave the band and take a job working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the group urged him to return, and he was back in the band by the time they ensconced to Woodstock, where they famously joined Dylan in recording the songs that later became known as the Basement Tapes. They also began composing their own material around this time, both on their own and in collaboration with Dylan, and many of these tracks would form the basis for the Band's first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band. For his part, Helm played a major role in the group's transition to an independent entity, sharing the vocals, playing drums, and also contributing guitar, bass, and mandolin.
The Band maintained a storied career, releasing a string of consistently excellent albums and reconnecting with their former employer for the Planet Waves album and a subsequent tour, later recorded and released as Before the Flood. The two parties then reunited for the Band's swan song, The Last Waltz, before the group opted to call it a day in 1976.
Helm didn't waste a moment in jumping into a solo career, recording four albums in fairly rapid succession -- Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars, Levon Helm, American Son, and yet another titled Levon Helm. He also participated in a concept album, The Legend of Jesse James, singing the title track alongside Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Albert Lee.
In 1983, the Band reunited without its principal songwriter, Robbie Robertson, and released a trio of albums with moderate success -- Jericho, High on the Hog, and Jubilation. Sadly, the reunion was tragically tainted by the hanging suicide of keyboard player Richard Manuel during a tour stop in Winter Park in 1986. Helm and bandmate Rick Danko subsequently joined the first edition of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band in 1989, and a year later, he, Danko, and Garth Hudson participated in Roger Waters' live performance of The Wall in Berlin, playing before an estimated audience of half a million people. Helm also delved into acting, playing leading roles in the films Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff. In 1993, he made his mark in the literary world with his autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire -- Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, and the following year, he and the other members of the Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Following a series of grave mishaps -- a bout with throat cancer that temporarily wiped out his singing voice, the loss of his barn due to a fire, and accompanying financial difficulties that nearly led to insolvency -- Helm bounced back in the new millennium, releasing the critically acclaimed albums Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt, and a live album, Ramble at the Ryman, reaping major Grammy awards in the folk and Americana categories as a result. He toured consistently, played several major venues, and began hosting a series of all-star concerts dubbed the Midnight Ramble at his home studio in Woodstock, New York.
Sadly, Helm's cancer returned, and on April 17, 2012, Helm's website informed his fans he was "in the final stages of his battle with cancer." He died two days later, ending the life and career of a man Rolling Stone once called one of the ten greatest singers of all time. He was buried in Woodstock Cemetery alongside his former colleague, Rick Danko. His death leaves only two surviving members of the original quintet known as the Band, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson.
Helm was a rare breed, one of the few drummers also known as an outstanding singer. Yet he maintained a distinctive style in each discipline that made his multitasking a real wonder. Here's a list of other musicians who showed the same dexterity and coordination.
Ringo had a couple of star turns with the Beatles, signing lead on the songs "Boys," "Honey Don't," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "With a Little Help From My Friends," "Don't Pass Me By," "Goodnight," and "Octopus' Garden." These days, he still manages to step out from the drum kit to take center stage with his All-Starr band.
Prior to connecting with Jimi Hendrix in the Band of Gypsies, Miles played with the jazz rock combo Electric Flag. However, he also achieved notoriety as a solo star, with his signature hit, "Them Changes."
Long before he could be counted on to top the pop charts, Collins was an accomplished drummer, one of the very best in progressive-rock realms. He even formed a fusion band called Brand X. He started singing while still with Genesis following the departure of lead singer Peter Gabriel, thereby giving the group their greatest commercial success.
Taylor's role as the rhythmic anchor for Queen might have been auspicious enough, but his soaring backing vocals on "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," "Another One Bites the Dust," and "Bohemian Rhapsody" proved to be a key element in the band's signature sound.
He also managed to take solo turns on the songs "I'm In Love With My Car," "Modern Times Rock 'N' Roll," "Fun It," and "Father to Son." He helped cowrite several songs for the group, among them "Radio Ga Ga," "A Kind of Magic," "The Invisible Man," and "These Are the Days of Our Lives." He later went on to release four albums on his own.
As half of the Carpenters with her brother Richard, Karen's drumming skills were generally underrated. Still, she took her cue from Dave Brubeck's drummer Joe Morello, later earning the respect of session drummer Hal Blaine, who contributed to their recording sessions and credited her as an excellent player.
Still, she was best-known as a singer, and her haunting vocals on the songs "Close to You," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "We've Only Just Begun," "Superstar," and "For All We Know" guaranteed pop immortality. She died in 1983 at age 32 from a heart attack after a seven-year battle with anorexia.
When Dolenz was cast as member of the made-for-TV band the Monkees, his expertise was in acting, not as a musician. Still, he proved to be an effective singer, making his impression on such hits as "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer," "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday." He was then taught drums and was soon able to fake his skills on camera. Eventually, he became adept enough to play in performances and in the studio as well. These days, Dolenz still tours, but mostly he sticks to singing.
The original backbone of Kiss, Criss' initiation with the band came when he, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley convened at an Italian nightclub and Criss went into a Wilson Pickett impersonation. Hard to imagine, but that was enough impetus for him to be hired as the band's drummer.
He later added his vocals to the Kiss staples "Black Diamond," "Dirty Livin'," "Hard Luck Woman," "Nothin' to Lose," "Mainline," "Strange Ways," "Hooligan," "Kissin' Time," and "Getaway," although it was his solo turn on the unlikely ballad "Beth" (originally called "Beck" and rumored to have been written for Rod Stewart) that proved his mettle as a singer and gave the band its biggest hit.
A distinguished member of the all-girl group the Bangles, Debbi Peterson was the band's drummer and the younger sister of bandmate Vicki Peterson. She sang lead vocals on two of their singles, "Going Down to Liverpool" and "Be With You." After the Bangles' breakup in 1992, she did a short solo stint and later formed the duo Kindred Spirit.
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