By Steve Israel
Published: 2:00 AM - 04/20/12
Woodstock's Levon Helm,, as much beloved for his salt-of-the-earth integrity as for his earthen voice and in-the-pocket drumming, died Thursday afternoon in New York.
Helm was surrounded by friends and family, including his wife, Sandy, and daughter Amy, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. There will be a memorial service, but details had not been finalized as of Thursday evening.
The former drummer of The Band, singer of such classics as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” who won three Grammy awards for his last three solo albums, was just one month shy of his 72nd birthday. Surviving in 1999 a previous bout with throat cancer, Helm, born Mark Lavon Helm – called “the greatest drummer” by Ringo Starr, and “one of the best singers ever, right up there with Ray Charles“ by Kris Kristofferson – succumbed to a recurrence of cancer.
Amid scores of tributes that began pouring in when word of Helm's illness spread, this one, spoken months ago by his band mate and friend, Larry Campbell, summed up Helm's talent:
“The one guy who can do any form of honest American music with authority. He can do Southern gospel like he grew up in a church, blues like he was born on the Delta, rock 'n' roll like he was there at the beginning. He's the Delta of American music.”
Thursday afternoon, Campbell spoke of his “treasured” relationship with Helm.
“What I'm most proud of is he called me his partner,” Campbell said. “For me to arrive at a place in my career like that with a great man like him is the ultimate.”
Helm's death came at the height of a surging second act, after he'd suffered through times that were as blue as the blues he loved growing up in a home without electricity in Turkey Scratch, Ark.
After his career with a re-formed Band ended in the early '90s, a fire destroyed his home in Woodstock. He declared bankruptcy and developed throat cancer. He couldn't sing and feared that fertile voice that once sang “pulled into Nazareth” would be replaced by a mechanical box.
But when that voice began to re-emerge – after 28 radiation treatments – he rebuilt his life by doing the only thing he ever wanted to do: play the music he first heard sitting on the lap of his daddy, Diamond Helm, who sang old songs like “Sittin' On Top of the World.”
Helm hosted weekly Midnight Ramble concerts at his bluestone and wood barn-like home. Those Rambles, which he played until last month, were like the ones he'd seen as a boy at traveling music shows like F.S. Wolcott's Rabbit's Foot Minstrel Show. Those shows featured characters who would later become figures in Band songs, like the stripper named Caledonia.
The Midnight Rambles featured guests like Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, My Morning Jacket, the Black Crowes and Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. They all clamored to play the informal, often improvised gigs at what frequent band member Jimmy Vivino called “the center of the musical universe.” Fans and musicians flocked to see and play with the slight man with the wide smile and electric eyes.
“There were guys who were hooked on being famous and guys who just loved to play, and those guys who loved to play played the Rambles,” said Helm's friend and Woodstock neighbor, former Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian, who played more Rambles than he could count.
Anyone who met Helm and had the chance to have him offer up one of his glass bottles of Coke “made from real cane sugar” loved him as much for his down-home honesty as for his down-home, but meticulously played music.
When Cingular One used “The Weight” for a cellphone commercial, Helm protested. “We didn't write the song to sell (expletive) cell phones,” he told the Times Herald-Record. He also blasted what some consider to be one of the greatest rock 'n' roll movies, “The Last Waltz,” which chronicled the Band's last concert. All the vocals were overdubbed, except his.
“One big (expletive) lie,” he said, adding, “You know me, I'm here for the music.”
Fact is, Helm made all of his music for the same reason he did as a kid in Turkey Scratch, in his home with a water pump out front: He loved it. Whether slapping a beat on wooden boxes to old songs like “Little Bird” – which appeared on the Grammy-winning “Dirt Farmer” – winning 4-H Club talent shows playing songs on guitar with his sister Linda on washtub bass, or hitting the road with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks in a 1959 Cadillac and picking up members Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson along the way, Helm loved the music.
Those Hawks became The Band, moved to Woodstock to back Bob Dylan, and spent the late '60s in the West Saugerties house they called Big Pink, which was not only the partial name of the Band's first album, but also the place where Dylan and The Band jammed on the tunes that would become part of “The Basement Tapes.”
Even though Helm played his music around the world, he always found time to play for people he knew loved it – a fundraiser for an Ulster County school, a friend's wedding in Arkansas, a freebie for the folks at Gill's farm stand on Route 209. And he always thought of others before himself.
He made sure the great blues players he idolized – Hubert Sumlin and Johnnie Johnson, among others – played his Rambles. And when he won his last Grammy in February for “Ramble at the Ryman,” he dedicated it to his former singer and harmonica player Little Sammy Davis, who is suffering from the effects of a stroke.
His friend of more than 40 years and veteran of numerous Rambles, Happy Traum, spoke for everyone who was lucky enough to have met Levon Helm.
“It's just been a joy to know him,” he said. “I've felt personally privileged to be his friend and be part of his family.”
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