Mark Lavon(Levon) Helm was born on May 26, 1940 outside Elaine in Phillips County, Arkansas to Nell and Diamond Helm. He had two sisters and one brother. The Helms had a cotton farm and the family lived around Marvel, which is in the western part of Phillips County. His family encouraged him to play and sing music at home and in church. After watching blue grass artist Bill Monroe perform, he began playing the guitar. Levon’s interest soon changed to the drums after attending F.S. Walcott Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel show because they had a left handed drummer. The Rabbit Foot Minstrel was a touring group made up of a variety of artists that traveled from town to town by train usually. He was also inspired by James Peck Curtis, the drummer for blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson. Helm began spending much of his time at the KFFA radio station in Helena and started playing at local clubs. While in high school, he formed his first band called the Jungle Bush Beaters.
Levon Helm later in life
At seventeen, he got his first break when he met Rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins at the West Helena Delta Supper Club. After graduating high school, he soon joined the Ronnie Hawkins band known as the Hawks and played the drums. In 1959, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks recorded two hit albums named “Forty Days” and “Mary Lou.”
Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks: Levon Helm is on the far left
He soon moved to Canada with Hawkins where he met pianist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko, guitarist Robbie Robertson, and keyboard player Garth Hudson. It wasn’t long before these men broke away from Hawkins and began performing as Levon and the Hawks. In 1964, they had hits like “The Stones I Throw” and “Go Go Liza Jane.” They became more well known and Bob Dylan asked them to be his back up band. Levon and his band soon moved to Woodstock, New York, where they rehearsed and recorded music. In the Spring of 1968, the Band was formed. That was the name that Bob Dylan had given them. They recorded their debut album named “Music from Big Pink.” Released on Capital Records, the album combined country, R & B, Cajun, and old fashioned Rock & Roll. Music from Big Pink peaked at Number 30 on Billboard Album Charts, but was a hit on the Rock scene.
In 1969, the Band released an album named “The Band” which included songs such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” The Rolling Stone Album Guide called it “one of the richest and deepest records in rock history.” The album broke into the Billboard Top Ten and became a hit in both the United States and Britain.
Levon Helm on the drums with The Band
Levon Helm’s personal life was also changing during this time. He was living with Libby Titus in Woodstock and had a daughter in 1970.
The Band’s popularity continued to grow and they continued to tour and record albums. In 1974, they reunited with Bob Dylan and released a live album called “Before the Flood” which featured both Dylan and Band songs. In 1975, the double album“The Basement Tapes” recorded with Dylan was released on Columbia Records.
In 1976, Robbie Robertson announced that he was tired and wanted the Band to go out with one last bang. On Thanksgiving 1976, the Band performed their farewell concert titled “The Last Waltz.” A documentary film of the event was even released in 1978. Following the break up of the Band, Helm signed to ABC Records and released “Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars” in 1977. In 1980, Helm released the critically acclaimed album “American Son” on RCA and released “Levon Helm” on Capital Records in 1982.
The 80’s brought Helm another career as well. He started acting and played Loretta Lynn’s fatter in The Cold Miner’s Daughter. He also starred in End of the Line and In the Electric Mist.
In 1981, Levon married Sandra Dodd. He also toured with a reformed version of the Band and recorded several more albums in the 90’s. He continued living in Woodstock. After surviving throat cancer, he formed another band known as the Barn Burners and started touring. IN 2007, he released a new album called “The Dirt Farmer” on Vanguard, which earned him a Grammy in the Traditional Folk Album category. He also won another Grammy in 2009 for Best American Album titled “Electric Dirt.” Helm continued to tour and play concerts including a number of King Biscuit Blues Festivals in Helena, Arkansas near his childhood home.
Signed shirt Levon Helm found at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena
Levon Helm died on April 19, 2012 from throat cancer, which had returned. In 2017, the state of Arkansas designated U.S. Highway 49 form Marvel to Helena the Levon Helm Memorial Highway. The city of Marvel has recently moved his childhood home to the center of town in order to honor him with a museum. Levon Helm is a true treasure for the Delta and he always remembered where he was from and what that meant. On a personal note, I grew up listening to him and he is one of my favorite artists.