On May 26, 1940, Mark Lavon Helm was the second of four children born to Nell and Diamond Helm in Elaine, Arkansas. Diamond was a cotton farmer who entertained occasionally as a musician. The Helm’s loved music and often sang together. They listened to The Grand Ole Opry and Sonny Boy Williamson and his King Biscuit Entertainers regularly on the radio. A favorite family pastime was attending traveling music shows in the area.
He saw the birth of rock and roll and though he’s too much of a gentleman to say it, his role in helping to keep that rebellious child healthy is more than just instrumental.On May 26, 1940, Mark Lavon Helm was the second of four children born to Nell and Diamond Helm in Elaine, Arkansas. Diamond was a cotton farmer who entertained occasionally as a musician. The Helm’s loved music and often sang together. They listened to The Grand Ole Opry and Sonny Boy Williamson and his King Biscuit Entertainers regularly on the radio. A favorite family pastime was attending traveling music shows in the area.
Levon’s father bought him his first guitar at age nine. At ten and eleven, whenever he wasn't in school or at work on the farm, the boy could be found at KFFA’s broadcasting studio in Helena, Arkansas, watching Sonny Boy Williamson do his radio show, King Biscuit Time. Helm made his younger sister Linda a string bass out of a washtub when he was twelve years old. She would play the bass while her brother slapped his thighs and played harmonica and guitar. They would sing songs learned at home and popular hits of the day, and billed themselves as “Lavon and Linda.” Because of their fresh faced good looks, obvious musical talent and Levon’s natural ability to win an audience with sheer personality and infectious rhythms, the pair consistently won talent contests along the Arkansas 4-H Club circuit.
In 1954, Levon was fourteen years old when he saw Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins do a show at Helena. Also performing was a young Elvis Presley with Scotty Moore on guitar, and Bill Black on stand-up bass. They did not have a drummer. The music was early jazz-fueled rockabilly, and the audience went wild. In ’55 he saw Elvis once more, before Presley’s star exploded. This time Presley had D.J. Fontana with him on drums and Bill Black was playing electric bass. Helm couldn’t get over the difference and thought it was the best band he’d seen. The added instruments gave the music solidity and depth. People jumped out of their seats dancing to the thunderous, heart-pumping, rhythms.
The melting pot that was the Mississippi Delta had boiled over and evolved. It’s magnificently rich blues was uniting with all the powerful, new, spicy-hot sounds and textures that became rock and roll.Natural progression led Levon to form his own rock band as a high school junior, called The Jungle Bush Beaters. While Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were making teens everywhere crazed, Levon would practice, play, watch and learn. After seeing Jerry Lee’s drummer Jimmy Van Eaton, he seriously began thinking of playing the drums himself. Around this same time, the seventeen year old musician was invited by Conway Twitty to share the stage with Twitty and his Rock Housers. He had met Twitty when "Lavon and Linda" opened for him at a previous show. Helm was a personable, polite teen who took his music seriously, so Twitty allowed him to sit in whenever the opportunity arose.
His next effort was the self-titled Levon Helm, followed by American Son, released in 1980. That same year was pivotal as Helm turned his attention to acting. He played Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter, winning great reviews for his first film appearance. He did another self-titled album and Hollywood again came knocking in ’83 giving Helm a role in The Right Stuff. The authenticity he brings to his characters has brought him numerous movie roles from 1980 to date. Levon gave a sensitive, convincing portrayal of a destitute blind man in the 2005 Tommy Lee Jones' vehicle, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. In 2007 he filmed Shooter with Mark Wahlberg. Helm recently portrayedConfederate General John Bell Hood in a movie called In the Electric Mist, again with his friend Tommy Lee Jones. Rick Danko and Levon reunited to play music after Danko had been living in California. Rick moved back to Woodstock and the friends did an acoustic tour in early ’83. In San Jose the following year, they received excellent reviews when Hudson and Manuel joined them for their first U.S. appearance as The Band since 1976. They continued playing together until the tragic death of their dear friend and comrade, the forty-two year old Manuel.
During the 90’s three more Band albums were recorded. Jericho, High on the Hog, ending with Jubilation. In 1998, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer and the famous voice with the rich southern nuances was silenced to a whisper. He still played the drums, mandolin and harmonica, often performing with his daughter, Amy Helm, also a vocalist and instrumentalist. A great emotional support to her father during this time, Amy continues to appear with him regularly at Levon Helm Studios. In 1999, Helm endured another tragic loss when Rick Danko passed away the day after his birthday at fifty-six years old. His death marked the end of an era.
Today, Levon’s voice has miraculously recovered. He is singing again, strong and clear. His imagination and vision conceived The Midnight Ramble Sessions, a series of live performances at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock. Named for the traveling minstrel shows of his youth, the first Midnight Ramble was held in January, 2004. It featured one of the last performances by great blues pianist, Johnnie Johnson. Friends old and new have joined Levon on his stage including: Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, John Sebastian, Allan Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Larry Campbell, Jimmy Vivino, Hubert Sumlin, Little Sammy Davis, The Boxmasters, The Muddy Waters Band, The Swell Season, Donald Fagen, Hipmotism, Ollabelle, The Alexis P. Suter Band, The Love Trio, The Bruce Katz Band, Sex Mob and The Brian Mitchell Band. The monthly Rambles have been so successful they are usually sold out in advance.
New releases produced by Levon Helm Studios are Volume I and II of The Midnight Ramble Sessions, plus a live RCO All-Stars performance from New Year’s Eve 1977, at the Palladium which came from Helm’s personal “vault.” The vitality and magnetism of these recordings speak for themselves. In September of 2007, Dirt Farmer Music and Vanguard Records released Dirt Farmer, Levon's first solo, studio album in twenty-five years. A project particularly close to his heart, the CD contains music reminiscent of his past and songs handed down from his parents. Dirt Farmer was awarded a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in February 2008. Fans will be pleased that Helm has just finished his new follow-up CD, Electric Dirt. It's release date is June 30, 2009.
The intimacy of the shows performed at Levon’s hearth offer a hospitality and warmth found in no other venue, not to mention the excellence of the performances themselves, hosted by a man whose gifts are legendary. Though always an enthusiastic and passionate performer, today with sheer joy and gratitude, he effortlessly captivates his audience young and old, with a rhythmic power all his own. During a career that has spanned over five decades, Levon Helm has nurtured a tradition of professionalism with a deep respect for his craft and remains refreshingly genuine in a world that often compromises integrity. He is a master storyteller who weaves his tales with the magic thread of universality that ties us all. He beckons us to come in, sit awhile and enjoy. We see ourselves in his stories and we are home.