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iOldies Music Store Home > Artist Biographies > Levon Helm

Levon Helm

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Artist Biographies: The Levon Helm Band


Levon Helm was born in 1940 to cotton farmers in Arkansas. His family had a love of music and performing, so it was natural for him to grow up to be an instrumentalist across many genres of music. Helm is most notably known for rock music, but he also dabbled with bluegrass, country and a little bit of soul. Levon Helm first influence was the Grand Ole Opry, as the family sat around the radio and listed to the performers each week. He also loved to hear Sonny Boy Williamson and the King Biscuit Entertainers. For vacations, the family attended music shows in the region as they traveled. Helm admitted his first memory was that of being a six year old boy and seeing Bill Monroe perform.


At the age of nine, Levon Helm had a guitar and taught himself how to play. After school, he sat in the local radio station in Arkansas and watched Sonny Boy Williamson and the group do their radio show in person. He started mimicking their sound in his rehearsals at home.


Helm was so in to music, he made his sister join in the performances. One day, he created a bass for his sister from an old washtub. He played guitar or the harmonica along with popular tunes of the day from the radio. They decided to try out their luck performing for real and named themselves Lavon and Linda and entered talent shows. They were regular winners because of their talent, no matter where they went or who they performed against.


When Levon Helm was 14 years old, he saw a show that changed his life. He attended a concert by Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Opening for them was someone named Elvis Presley, who had a guitar player named Scotty Moore, but lacked a drummer. The following year, he saw Elvis again, but this time he had added a drummer and the sound was incredible. Levon Helm listened to this style of music and closely mirrored it while he went back home and practiced.


Helm formed a band when he was in high school called the Jungle Bush Beaters. The Levon Helm Band played in local venues for the most part. Conway Twitty invited them to open up a show for him and his band, because Levon Helm had a reputation for already taking music very seriously, despite his young age.


In 1957, Helm met a man by the name of Ronnie Hawkins. He drafted Helm to be his drummer for the groups The Hawks as soon as his high school graduation was over. The Levon Helm Band then played across Canada and the US until 1959, when they had a recording contract with Roulette Records. That album produced two hits and allowed them an appearance with Dick Clark on American Bandstand. The Levon Helm Band then became known as The Hawks


The Hawks were asked to open for Bob Dylan in the 1960s, and the group began playing across Europe as well as North America. They played for several years and Helm took a short break and went back home to work, but later rejoined the Hawks for Woodstock in 1967.


Levon Helm left them and created a band called The Band. The Band stayed together until 1976 and had one hit record together. After this, Helm began a solo career and working with instrumentals for other bands. He learned how to play many instruments through the decades.


In the late 1990s, it was rumored that Helm was suffering from an illness after he had canceled several shows. The diagnosis was actually throat cancer, which the resulting radiation treatments damaged his vocal chords.


Levon Helm appeared in many movies from the 1976 title The Last Waltz to the 2009 film, In the Electric Mist. In all, he is credited in 12 movies which include Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Right Stuff and Fire Down Below.  His reputation with instruments preceded him and he was consulted on many projects from music to movies to soundtracks.


In April of 2012, Helm’s cancer was rumored to have come back and put him in the final stages of life during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. It was announced he had succumbed to the terrible disease on April 19, 2012 at a hospital in New York with his friends and family by his side.


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