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.