On The Passing Of Levon Helm

April 23, 2012

By Fred W. Gretsch

Along with music fans around the world, I mourn the passing this past April 19 of the great drummer and singer Levon Helm. His was a special talent: the ability to bring unequivocal honesty to every note that he sang and every beat that he played.

Much of that honesty stemmed from Levon’s background. Born May 26, 1940 in Arkansas, he grew up with country, bluegrass, and church music—the roots of what is now known as “Americana” music. But Levon was also a witness to the birth of rock & roll. As a teenager he saw Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis in concert, and their impact on him was profound.

Levon was inspired to play drums after seeing Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer, Jimmy Van Eaton. (He also played mandolin and other stringed instruments). In 1960, he got his first musical job with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, whose backup group also included Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. Only a few years later that lineup would make history—and help create a firestorm of controversy—by backing Bob Dylan on his first-ever electrified shows.

In 1968 the five talented musicians—now known simply as the Band—brought their unique roots-rock style to the world with their debut album Music From Big Pink. This was followed in 1969 by their eponymously titled second album. It contained the hit singles “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”—both of which featured Levon Helm on lead vocals. As Rolling Stone put it: “Although Robbie Robertson was the Band’s principal songwriter, it was Helm’s beautifully gruff and ornery voice that brought the Canadian Robertson’s mythic Americana songs to life.” To most Band fans, that voice was the very character of the Band’s music.

Speaking of character, Levon also brought his to the silver screen. His first appearance on film was his last appearance with the Band in its original lineup. That was in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz—widely regarded as the best concert movie ever made. But after the Band’s breakup Levon turned to actual film acting. His first role was as country singer Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. Three years later he played US air force test pilot and engineer Jack Ridley in the hugely successful The Right Stuff. Between 1984 and 2009 Levon appeared in nine more films, all of which benefitted from his earthy, natural persona.

But Levon never stayed away from music for long. Despite contracting throat cancer in the 1990s that turned his powerful tenor voice to a husky rasp, Levon pursued his passion. In the early 2000s he established the Midnight Rambles—a series of musical performances held at his home near Woodstock, New York. Besides a group of core musicians that included Levon’s daughter Amy, the Rambles often featured guest artists who came to offer their respect as much as their talents. Elvis Costello, Natalie Merchant, Donald Fagen, and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and were among the many that joined Levon and his band.

Levon found Woodstock and made a home there years ago. I can understand why, because the Gretsch family also found peace in the Catskills. At the turn of the 20th century my grandparents were regular visitors to Elka Park, just up the mountain from Woodstock. It was a favorite summer retreat for German families from New York City. The fourth, fifth, and sixth generations of the Gretsch family attended the park’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1990, and we’ve visited many times since. As Levon surely knew, it’s a special area.

As Levon slowly regained some of his vocal prowess, he delved deeper into the historic roots of American music. He won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for his 2007 studio album, Dirt Farmer, and his 2010 album Electric Dirt won the first-ever Grammy for Best Americana Album. He followed his win in 2011 by taking home the same award for his live album, Ramble at the Ryman.

Levon had an affinity for Gretsch drums throughout his career, and I’m proud to say that he became an official Gretsch artist a few years ago. Whether behind those drums or behind a microphone, Levon Helm was immediately identifiable and totally unmistakable. I’m saddened by his passing, but I celebrate his life and his unique contributions to American music.

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