Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage.com
Levon Helm, 1940–2012
(As a member of the Band, Levon Helm was honored with The Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. The following tribute ran in the GRAMMY Awards program book that year. Helm died April 19 at the age of 71.)
In the case of the band that became known as the Band, the concept of a Lifetime Achievement Award may seem too restrictive: There's a timelessness to the group's musical output that transcends not only their lifespan as a recording entity, but also the cultural markers we use to trace the movement of musical history.
Chalk it up to talent and versatility, combined with the collective humility and hubris that enabled them to shine alongside Ronnie Hawkins, then Bob Dylan, and then all the artists — from Muddy Waters and Joni Mitchell to Neil Young and Eric Clapton — who joined in on their Martin Scorsese-filmed The Last Waltz.
Or call it a meeting at the cultural crossroads, where four Canadians and one Southerner bridged the great divide with an early assist from the 50,000-watt WLAC Nashville, which sent the sounds of Southern "race music" all the way up to Canada. Indeed, the midnight rambles and rollicking medicine shows that populated Robbie Robertson's dreams of the American South were part of daily life for Marvell, Ark., native Levon Helm. So when the 14-year-old Robertson stumbled upon a not-much-older Helm manning the drum kit for Hawkins in a Toronto nightclub, the spell was cast. Robertson devoted his teen years to playing guitar for the Hawks, whose ranks would soon include future Band members Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel on piano and Garth Hudson on organ.
As '50s pop showmanship gave way to '60s rock solipsism, Hawkins' best backing band was destined to find its own place in musical history. In 1963 the group went out on its own.
After a mid-'60s tour as Dylan's backing band (at the height of media controversies surrounding his de-folking), the Band released Music From Big Pink, their influential and eclectic 1968 debut, which broke out of the gate with the keyboard- and horn-driven assault of "Chest Fever," the Danko/Dylan-penned "This Wheel's On Fire" and Helm's plaintive lead vocals on "The Weight." It was the beginning of an extraordinary body of work, as the Band went on to hone their already tight vocal and instrumental arrangements on Southern gothic sing-alongs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up On Cripple Creek."
While the Band's collaborations are justly praised (except, perhaps, for the not-so-justly overlooked Dylan album Planet Waves), their true magic stemmed from the interplay of five talents who, as their song "Stage Fright" suggests, ultimately found themselves caught in the spotlight. The combination of their creative impulses has left a musical legacy as indelible as it is inspired.
(Bill Forman is a writer and music editor for the Colorado Springs Independent and the former publications director for The Recording Academy.)