[Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images]Levon Helm, the founding drummer of the Band, died Thursday, April 19 at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York at the age of 71. The Arkansas-born musician was the lone American in The Band, surrounding himself with Canadians for no discernible reason. His autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire, is a must-read for anyone who enjoys hearing how much Helm disliked Robbie Robertson.
While history will surely remember Helm for his role as the drummer for Bob Dylan's first electric tour and for his portrayal of Loretta Lynn's dad in Coal Miner's Daughter, Helm should also be remembered for the fine solo work he released near the end of his life, for which he won numerous awards.
Here are ten tracks that you could say were helmed by Levon!
10) Sweet Little Sixteen: Found on the album Toolin' Around Woodstock by guitarist Arlen Roth, Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" is given a great read with Levon on lead vocals. It's a testament to Helm's abilities that he could breathe new life into a tune that's been done by just about every bar band on earth. He still makes it sound like he means it. He did this after his bout with throat cancer. Helm was one resilient dude!
9) You Can't Win 'Em All: The 1980s were not a kind decade for musicians brought up on natural sounds. Helm was no exception. This 1982 self-titled solo album, not to be confused with the other self-titled solo album from 1978, has some production misfires but the opening cut is plenty of fun if you ever wondered what Helm might sound like leading Tommy Tutone.
8) Kingfish: Helm's final studio album, Electric Dirt, stays true to Helm's musical preferences. Ah, the joys of being too old to care about staying current! Here's his cover of Randy Newman's "Kingfish," a tribute to everyone's favorite Louisiana governor, Huey P. Long, who was seen by his people as a champion of the little guy in the face of Big Business. Mister, we sure could use a man like Huey P. Long again. Long was assassinated at age 42. Some people don't like progress.
7) Even A Fool Would Let Go: Another cut from Helm's 1982 self-titled album, "Even A Fool" sounds a bit like something off a Billy Joel album from 1978 or a "modern country" album of the early 1980s, but Helm's vocal is soulful and assured and proof that a great vocalist can work wonders no matter the situation. Don't overlook it!
6) Growing Trade: Written by Helm and his right-hand man, guitarist Larry Campbell, this track works up the lather that Helm was a hard-working man who knew the value of mentioning one's grandfather in song and the proper way to mention the sun on one's shoulders.
5) When I Go Away: Electric Dirt has some of Helm's best musical accompaniment. The production is spare and to the point, making the album far more of a joy than the output of most men closing in on 70, who are often found at early-bird specials in Florida restaurants. Music keeps you young and in need.
4) The Mountain: This Steve Earle-penned tune appeared on Helm's post-throat cancer album Dirt Farmer where his voice sounds amazingly well for having been battered by fate. The tune also features a great drummer.
3) Up On Cripple Creek: OK, this is where most people figured I'd end up. The Band. Though Helm was the third vocalist in the band, coming in behind Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, he sang several of the group's key tracks that people associate with this bunch of rustic-music loving anti-psychedelic rangers. Let's all get back to the land.
2) The Weight: Who hasn't sat in a bar and heard someone attempt "The Weight" only to miss the mark by a noticeable distance? The joy of the tune is how each member of the group shares the "weight" of the tune. Or maybe you prefer the "Smith" version.
1) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: Written by Robbie Robertson as a history lesson, it's Helm who schools the tune. It's his vocal, loaded with empathy and pain, that guides the tune, along with a rhythmic sense that turns the song from a lope into a trudge. RIP, Levon, RIP.