Levon Helm


levon helm 615

by Tony Leone

I can remember when and where it was that I first became aware of Levon Helm. In the early 80s, when MTV was just starting out, they would occasionally play clips from concert movies as videos. I was about 12 years old and had been playing drums in a band for about a year. I had also been doing some singing from the kit.

One afternoon, a clip from something called, “The Last Waltz” came on by a group I’d never heard of called The Band. They were playing a song called,”The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

The drummer was playing a black marine pearl Gretsch kit that looked a lot like the ’60 Slingerland kit I had inherited from my dad. He was stationed at stage left more towards the front of the stage, his kit cocked to the side so you could see everything he was doing. There was a vocal mic goose necked directly over his head and he was singing lead with every ounce of his being.

His playing was completely different from all the other drummers I had been hearing and seeing at that time. For starters he had a basic 4 piece kit with just a few cymbals,not one of those huge drum cages with toms and cymbals surrounding him. He held the sticks traditional grip with the left stick in a sideways fashion. I had learned traditional grip from my Dad who was a drummer himself, but many of my drummer friends played “matched grip” as did most of the other drummers I’d been aware of then.

His rhythmic feel was loose and fluid, yet rock solid, deep and funky. His drumming seemed to weave in, out and around the vocal line rather than lock it in with a static “time keeping” groove. His touch was sharp and sophisticated. His sound was low, warm, thuddy, clunky, chunky. Like a gut-bucket, second line, Salvation Army band. There were pauses and big breaths in the music that he accentuated with his bass drum and with press rolls. It totally blew me away and I immediately identified with it. I felt like he was playing the way I wanted to play. For months I walked around thinking the guy I saw was possibly Kris Kristofferson on drums but I didn’t know for sure….

A few months later I was in our backyard raking leaves with the radio on. The local rock station was playing “blocks” from A-Z of the greatest rock bands of all time all weekend. They started the Bs with The Band. I immediately got excited hoping to hear that “Dixie” tune again. Instead,the first tune started with a funky riff between the bass and drums. It was,”Up On Cripple Creek”. The tempo was deep, way back,and the pocket was wide as a river. At the time I considered myself an expert on all of the classic rock bands but this was really like nothing I’d heard before. It was so organic sounding. Real. Unprocessed. It sounded like some guys playing in a room together and the rhythm gave you something to hang your hat on right away. The vocal came in with a soulful southern twang that worked in tandem with the drum beat. They danced around each
other like two prize fighters at the beginning of a championship fight. It hit me like lightning.

If you had told me that day that I’d ever get to meet Levon Helm, let alone play music and share the stage with him, I would have yelled for the neighbors and called the cops. But through his daughter Amy, my bandmate in Ollabelle, we all got to meet him and share many great times together. Musically and otherwise. What I found was that the soulfulness, the realness, the earthiness and that delta swing were ALL who this man really was. The guy you felt like you knew in those songs through that voice and those stories, and that incredible, perfectly placed backbeat was exactly the guy you met, if you were lucky enough to meet him. And if you were so lucky, he went out of his way to make you feel comfortable, included and welcome. He loved people, telling stories and, above all, laughter.

On April 19th, 2012 the music world lost one of its true originals. He was the kind of musician who had no filter between his soul and his hands or voice. He was born and raised at the birthplace of rock n’roll. His lifelong teachers had been the road and the audience. His mission was to make the people dance,smile and feel good. And he seemed always able to tap into that well of light and share it with us all.

Though his passing has caused a tremor of loss through the world of music lovers, his legacy is his music and the joy, tenacity, and celebration of life that it held and conveyed.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, Decade of Note, Drummers, Instrument / 11 comments

11 Comments on Levon Helm

  1. Kay says:

    A very well-written reminiscence by someone who knows his way around a drum kit and knew Levon Helm for many years. I would love to hear more drummers’ stories about how they discovered Levon and what it meant to them.

  2. Gary Richards says:

    I really enjoyed this, and watching the videos were a bonus. Well done, Tony…..Well done….

  3. Butch Dener says:

    I brought Levon to his 1st recording session with Ollabelle.
    We both were very impressed with these “kids”, & their musicianship. Amy, of course, had been around The Band, since forever, but the rest of Ollabelle were new to Me & the boss.
    I always gravitate to the Drummers, due to my long friendship with Levon & Randy Ciarlante & meeting Tony Leone, just cemented that feeling of brotherhood.
    He is a naturally gifted singing drumme, like Levon & Rando, & he brings a ture manly voice to all the projects he is involved with.
    Thanks Brother Leone, for this touching memory,

    You earned that CHAIR in Helm’s band, son,,

    Uncle B

  4. John Ferris says:

    I saw Levon last September at the barn, one of the most memorable music moments of my life — right up there with seeing Duke Ellington about a year or two before his death. On one occasion, one of numerous Band shows I attended, I stood about five feet from Levon, and simply watched him, transfixed, for the entire evening. A well -written tribute here to an unforgettable musician. He belongs to the ages.

  5. james jones says:

    yes. i had the pleasure of being @ a ramble, just last summer. &, we got to see levon, john sebastian, larry campbell, & happy traum down on the village green, as well. it was an experience i wouldn’t have traded for anything! i, also, was fortunate enough to get to see most of levon’s career, from early Band, to reformed Band, to the Barnburners, and, the Levon Helm Band. I consider myself blessed to have shared some time, on this earth, with him. Well written, and, spot on!

  6. wayne w freeman says:

    Very well written , awesome tribute to a true American musical icon.I met him maybe a dozen times when they toured Canada with the Cate Brothers Band. As a garage band drummer years back, I to learned to watch and appreciate the effortless fluidness of his drumming, and the fact that he was also the main singer of the Band,doing probably 75% of the lead singing and 25% of the harmony singing as well, and to boot played harmonica, and mandolin as well, with either Richard, or my buddy Terry Cagle playing drums. Levon was the heart,soul, and true Leader of the Hawks, Band, etc. It was his dream, to play live music, to and for all whom could a would appreciate it, and through the true love of family and friends, Amy, Larry, Theresa, Donald Fagen, Ollabelle, Jimmy Vevino, Jim Weider, and numerous more, his dream will live on and the Life, music will live on, for all to appreciate.

  7. Well written Tony. I love how you captured the way Levon’s music affected you. It affected me the same way 2, nearly 20 years earlier, when Big Pink was first release. I feel fortunate to have been to 2 Rambles, and got to see you play as well. “Holy Cow” you got it!

  8. Madeleine Hague says:

    Thanks for a lovely piece on the great Levon Helm. A few years ago, I was stopped in my tracks by an article in Canada’s national newspaper that said drummer Levon was also a “backup singer” for The Band. Despite Levon being from Arkansas, we Canucks always considered The Band “our band” and this writer should have known better! I emailed the writer (with a list of some of Levon’s better-known lead vocals – including “Up on Cripple Creek” which reached #8 in Canada) and got a red-faced digital reply. Levon will live on through his music. forever.

  9. Cara Mia says:

    i love this so much, T. love to all. XO

  10. Keith lovett says:

    That was beautifully written tony.
    I enjoyed reading it very much. Great and thoughtful imagery .

  11. Sandy helm says:

    Tony, I just read this for the first time and it brought me to tears with pride and your heartfelt love you had for Levon, and I know how much he loved you Tony and marveled at your talent,,your drumming and your singing, it just is something to me like rubbing your belly and
    Tapping your head at the same time and most kids could not do it.

    What a wonderful tribute, and the best, next to mr osbourne from CBS news “Sunday morning” show the first Sunday following LEVONS death.

    Oh how I love the love and respect you recognize my husband for. He was a genius, although he would hate for anyone to ever call him that..remember what he would call other “close knit musical folks”. As “burdened by greatness”. He was the kindest, the most generous with his music, his talent and all he could lay out there from himself to make people smile through his music…they broke the mold when Levon was born, and I miss him and thank God for the forty years I was blessed to spend with him..he made me a better person having gotten that precious time we had together

    Thanks Tony for giving him such a wonderful, exactly right “eulogy” of who he was alive, and what he will mean to all future musicians just discovering him now.

    Like you Tony, when you first hear him it is nothing like you have ever heard before. Love,
    Sandy helm.

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