The coolest drummer on the planet: Taking the load off Levon Helm
Sandra B. Tooze’s third tome is the engaging Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of The Band and Beyond. So far it’s the sole biography of the cash-strapped sharecropper’s kid from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, who established rockabilly roots in Toronto upon high school graduation, backed Bob Dylan when he abandoned acoustic folk, and served as the groundbreaking Americana quintet’s quadruple threat of a signature tenor vocalist, groove-laying drummer, mandolinist, and inspiration to songwriting architect Robbie Robertson. The Canadian-born Tooze, whose previous musical manuscript was Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man, exclusively weighs in on a lawsuit threat, becoming a “method” researcher, a rare instance of Helm’s sloppy drumming, unreleased recordings, myth versus fact, grudges, regrets, humor, and legacy.
The Sandra B. Tooze Interview
Have you been a writer continuously?
My day job was as a book editor, so that’s how I came to writing books myself. Coincidentally, one of the books I edited was an autobiography of Ronnie Hawkins, Last of the Good Ol’ Boys [co-written by Peter Goddard in 1989; originally dubbed the Hawks, various members of the Band supported the Toronto rockabilly maverick from 1957–1963; Helm was the first to join]. I wrote a few articles, but mostly I just dove into writing about blues legend Muddy Waters with no real experience [Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man, ECW Press, 1997].
When did you first hear Levon on the radio?
I wish I could remember exactly, but as a teenager I did think Levon was the coolest guy on the planet.
Was your road to fandom a gradual process? What made you sit up and take notice of Levon’s one in a million Arkansan tenor voice and in-the-pocket drumming?
For me Levon’s reputation preceded him, so it was a bit gradual. Of course, I always loved such songs as “The Weight” [No. 63 POP August 1968, Music from Big Pink] “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” [B-side of the No. 25 POP “Up on Cripple Creek” October 1969, The Band], and “Life Is a Carnival” [No. 72 POP, September 1971, Cahoots], so I soon came to appreciate him as a formidable talent.
Did you catch Levon live?
Unfortunately, I never saw the original Band lineup or the reunited 1983–1998 edition sans Robbie Robertson. I had the privilege of experiencing Levon onstage twice during the same weekend in September 2000 in Cleveland. The most memorable was when Levon was with his blues band the Barn Burners at a small club. We were both in town for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s American Music Masters Series, which was honoring Muddy. I was the keynote speaker [On September 23 Case Western Reserve University hosted the “Got My Mojo Working: Muddy Waters and Modern Blues” presentation. The next day Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, and Helm shared a bill at Severance Hall paying tribute to Waters. The club gig possibly occurred on the 23rd].
I had interviewed Levon a few years earlier and really wanted to tell him how much I appreciated it, but I knew he had had throat cancer surgery and had lost his voice. He walked right past me, and I didn’t say a thing because I thought that if he couldn’t talk at all it would be embarrassing for him. I found out later he could speak — he just couldn’t sing. Ever since, I’ve regretted not chatting to him that night.
What was the eureka moment where you decided, ‘Levon fascinates me. I wanna chronicle his life and career?’
Levon made a huge impression on me when I interviewed him in 1996 for The Mojo Man. It was like talking to an old friend — he was so warm and friendly to me — someone he didn’t know. Later, I learned that Levon was like that with everyone. And it wasn’t fake — he was truly interested in people. Not only did Levon talk to me about Muddy, he agreed to read my manuscript and wrote an enthusiastic endorsement for the back cover.
When you write a biography, you spend years immersed in someone else’s life, so for me it’s important that I like and admire my subject, both as a person and as a musician. When I was trying to come up with ideas for my next book, I thought, ‘I want it to be someone I respect as much as Levon.’ Then, like a bolt from the heavens, I had my subject. When I did some preliminary research on Levon, I became convinced there was more to say about this iconic musician than was in his autobiography [This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, in collaboration with Stephen Davis]. It was important to me that my book was filled with new information, not just a rehash of what was in his memoir, and I believe I’ve accomplished that.
Did anyone attempt to thwart your objective considering Levon had already compiled his life story in 1993?
I was informed at one point that someone else was writing Levon’s biography, but I had learned from writing the Muddy book, where I was threatened with a lawsuit, to ignore all that and plow ahead. A journalist who was planning to write a biography of Muddy said she was going to file an injunction against me to stop me from proceeding. Obviously, there was no basis for such a suit, and I heard nothing more about it.
Was it difficult to gain access to Levon for The Mojo Man?
In my experience, it was a lot easier to get in touch with the management of well-known musicians in the mid-1990s than it is today. I just contacted Levon’s management and was granted an interview. Levon was happy to discuss Muddy, one of his icons.
[Author’s Note: During a Ronnie Hawkins September 1961 session in New York, his backing crew, including future Band alums Helm, Robertson, and Danko, were allotted a brief window to cut their teeth on a few selections while their boss relaxed. A ferocious take of Waters’ “Nineteen Years Old” serves as one of Helm’s earliest lead vocals. Years later Helm co-produced and drummed on 1975’s Grammy-winning The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album. Waters returned the favor by contributing spirited renditions of “Caldonia” and “Mannish Boy” to The Band’s Last Waltz. Their first reunion album of the ’90s, Jericho, is home to Waters’ “Stuff You Gotta Watch.” In 1996 Helm sang “Going to Main Street,” the sixth cut on the Muddy Waters Tribute Band’s You’re Gonna Miss Me (When I’m Dead and Gone). Helm’s final studio LP, 2009’s Grammy-certified Best Americana Album Electric Dirt, finds his hero represented by “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” and a nearly unplugged version of “Stuff You Gotta Watch”].
Where did your research and interview process emanate?
I began my research at the library — both in person and online. The first person to agree to a phone interview was Ronnie Hawkins. I had been the editor for his autobiography, so I had experienced this flamboyant, larger-than-life figure before. I believe Ronnie’s stories are true, it’s just that sometimes he adds colorful embellishments.
The majority of interviews I conducted were done on the phone, although I traveled through Arkansas and into Memphis for many in-person interviews. Also, the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, part of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, has a wonderful archive of interviews and photographs, and I was generously given permission to use whatever I wanted for my book.
You kinda became a method biographer when you elected to take drum lessons.
It was an important part of my research. Quite soon after I began my book I realized I knew very little about Levon’s major instrument. I’ve been taking drum lessons ever since, and I really love it. I’m not a very good drummer — I’m still learning. There’s a reason I’ve written about music instead of performing it. I’ve played “Odessa” [the “nod to Levon’s and Ronnie’s friend from the Helena, Arkansas, brothel” emerged as the second track on the latter’s self-titled 1959 debut LP for Roulette Records], “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Weight.”
Are there instances where Levon’s drumming seems unfocused or uninspired?
In 1964, Levon, Robbie, Band organist Garth Hudson, harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, bassist Jimmy Lewis, and Mike Bloomfield [this time the “Like a Rolling Stone” Telecaster maestro surprisingly kept the piano bench warm] were the backing musicians on John Hammond’s So Many Roads blues album, which was recorded in only one day at New York’s Vanguard Studios. There is some pretty loose — some might say sloppy — playing on that record by everyone, including Levon’s drumming on “I Want You to Love Me.”
What was your litmus test for distinguishing myth from fact?
If you take one contentious issue — songwriting credits — there was some pressure for me to come up with a definitive answer as to whether the songs were solely written by Robbie or were collaborations among all the group members. It was impossible for me, however, as an outsider who wasn’t at the songwriting sessions, to absolutely determine the truth.
My approach to try to separate myth from fact throughout the book was to research as much as I could on each subject and interview those who had first-hand knowledge. I included positions on both sides of a controversy — and in the case of credits, I discussed the legal definition of songwriting — and let the reader come up with his or her own judgment. I feel strongly that for me to do anything more would be to act as a judge for an issue for which I had incomplete information.
Did Levon voice his frustrations about the songwriting credits prior to The Last Waltz?
Levon didn’t complain publicly about the songwriting credits while the original Band was together — it would have been counterproductive — but privately he was frustrated.
As early as the release of The Band’s first album in 1968, Music from Big Pink, Levon maintained that their songwriting was a group effort, an amalgamation of all their creativity, and Rick Danko agreed. Looking back in 2004, Helm wrote in the since-defunct Razor magazine, “In spite of the fact that Garth, Rick, Richard, and I had contributed to the writing of the songs on those first two records, the credits on most of them simply read J.R. Robertson.” By the time of their third album in 1970, Stage Fright, Robbie was pretty much on his own as a songwriter, as the other Band members felt there was no point in trying to collaborate when their efforts would not be credited.
[Author’s Note: Three of the ten songs on Stage Fright are credited to co-writers — lead cut “Strawberry Wine” is Helm / Robertson, while “Sleeping” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” are Manuel / Robertson. Fourth studio album Cahoots opens with its best performance, “Life Is a Carnival,” composed by Helm / Robertson / Danko. Islands, the founding lineup’s ultimate studio LP in 1977, finds Robertson / Danko joining forces on “Street Walker,” and the instrumental title cut credits Robertson / Hudson / Danko. For the trio of reformed Band albums in the ’90s, songs with Helm’s name attached were fashioned by committee — i.e. three or more writers. Jericho lists “The Caves of Jericho” and “Move to Japan.” High on the Hog registers only “Ramble Jungle.” Jubilation ranks as Helm’s most prolific songwriting output with six acknowledgements — “Don’t Wait,” “Last Train to Memphis,” “High Cotton,” “Kentucky Downpour,” “White Cadillac (Ode to Ronnie Hawkins),” and “Spirit of the Dance.” Among Helm’s six solo studio albums, he is listed as a co-writer on two out of 65 songs — “Blues So Bad” alongside Henry Glover for 1977’s Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars and “Growin’ Trade” in collaboration with Larry Campbell for Electric Dirt. Last but not least, the obscure 1989 soundtrack for Sean Astin’s coming-of-age drama Staying Together, with Helm in a supporting turn as the “proprietor of a small-town general store and the leader of a local band,” offers “Big Love in a Small Town”].
Can you empathize with Levon’s bitterness about the downfall of The Band?
From my research it seems that the end of the original Band was a unilateral decision made by Robbie — the others were not considered — so I can empathize with Levon’s bitterness about that. Levon didn’t want The Band to end; he believed the group had more to offer. But even if it had continued, with the negative feelings about the songwriting credits mostly going to Robbie, it would have been almost impossible for the group to have regained the spirit of collaboration that produced their original music.
[Author’s Note: On page 214 Tooze cites fellow Arkansas singer-guitarist Earl Cate, who toured prolifically with pianist-twin brother Ernie alongside Helm and the reformed Band between 1980 and 1985, as saying, “It just seemed like right from the get-go, after Levon did Coal Miner’s Daughter, during that time when we really started playing a lot, he pretty much constantly griped about the situation with Robbie and (music) publishing and all that.” Child support to Libby Titus, a protracted custody battle over daughter Amy, and at least three commercially underwhelming solo albums undoubtedly intensified Helm’s feelings].
Former Hawks road manager Bill Avis [1961–1965 as well as “The Band Is Back” 1983 world tour featuring the group sans Robertson] and son Jerome were indispensable contributors. Levon “would never say no to anybody,” consequently piling up expenditures by taking two buses on the road post-Dirt Farmer, and Garth’s jaw-dropping performance at Levon’s funeral [after finishing a piano instrumental, “Hudson stands up, sticks both arms out in the air and points two fingers up. He faced Levon’s casket, did that, and then walked right out of the room”] are just two of their indelible anecdotes.
Yes, the Avis family — Bill, wife Jeannine, and Jerome — were very important to my research. When I contacted them, they invited me to their home, and I spent the day with them. Afterwards, they were always available to answer my questions. Levon was a much-loved close friend, and they wanted to do what they could to honor his memory.
On the Steve Hoffman Music Forums a user called “S. P. Honeybunch” perceptively noted, “It’s ironic that the principal lead singer on ‘The Weight,’ such a beautiful record, carried a resentful, bitter, and hateful weight on his back for decades. It’s sad that Levon could never take that load off.” If Levon had not succumbed to throat cancer, which had metastasized to his spine, at age 71 on April 19, 2012, was there a possibility that he would have mended fences with Robbie, or had that ship long sailed?
Levon was a champion at nursing grudges, so I doubt he would ever have mended fences with Robbie. After all, he came to believe that Richard and Rick’s deaths [battling an alcohol and cocaine relapse, the 42-year-old Manuel hanged himself hours after a Band “doomsday” concert in Winter Park, Florida, on March 4, 1986, while Danko died in his sleep on December 10, 1999, at age 55 after decades of heroin abuse] were indirectly caused by Robbie, by denying them the songwriting royalties Levon felt that they had all earned. Levon and Garth also struggled financially. In addition, for Levon it was a matter of loyalty — once he felt you were disloyal, there was no coming back.
Does Levon have a curated music archive containing outtakes from his career?
I had no special access to Levon’s recordings. There is a January 1965 recording of Levon and the Hawks [Robertson, Manuel, Danko, and Hudson] in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that will be released at some point [In 2016 and 2018 tape owner Connell Miller posted two teaser tracks on YouTube — a rollicking cover of the ubiquitous blues rocker “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and an instrumental jam entitled “Garth’s Home Cookin’”. Miller “lugged a 47-pound Wollensak tape recorder” and two microphones to the Fondalite Club. Although the sound quality is compromised because of the microphones capturing considerable ambient noise and ensuing tape degradation, Miller insists he “came away with 18 songs of the most arranged and rehearsed, killer bar band on the planet!”].
I also know that the Barn Burners [Helm’s 1999–2004 solo band formed in the aftermath of The Band’s disintegration] recorded some material, so I would love to hear all that.
Recently, I was sent a CD entitled Free World and Levon Helm: Back to Memphis, a bootleg recording of a gig that Levon did in July 1995 at Blues City Café in Memphis, which captures Levon in a live setting.
How long did the book take from conception to completion? Did any deadlines elapse?
My literary agent Beverley Slopen didn’t want to send out my manuscript to potential publishers until it was completed, so I had no deadlines, although I imposed some on myself. The book took two and a half years to research and write, but I took a year off in the middle, so it spanned three and a half years.
Were there stumbling blocks in your quest to land a suitable publisher?
No, Beverley is excellent at her job, so I wasn’t worried about finding a publisher. I was confident that my subject matter was compelling enough that it would appeal to some publisher, which turned out to be Diversion Books.
How did you settle on that joyful black and white cover shot of Levon in the drum chair, and were there any alternates?
My editor Keith Wallman, cover designer Libby Kingsbury, and I scoured the Internet looking for possible cover photos. We wanted one from the heyday of the original Band, and we wanted Levon to look happy, as that was a big part of his personality. Libby found the photo by Lee Everett that we used. The original shot has a microphone covering part of Levon’s hair, and fortunately Lee allowed us to take that out.
Are Robbie and Garth, The Band’s surviving alums, aware of the book?
Robbie turned down my request for an interview, and I have heard nothing from him. An intermediary tried to get me in touch with Garth, but we received no reply. I don’t know if either of them has read the book.
I have heard from many friends of Levon who have read From Down in the Delta, and I’m very heartened that they all say they really appreciate the book and have told me that I’ve captured the essence of the man they knew. I was thrilled when Mary Vaiden, a lifelong pal of Levon’s, sent me a beautiful, appreciative note about my book along with a framed photograph of Levon with her and Anna Lee Amsden, another close confident who grew up with them both.
How has COVID-19 capsized your book event schedule?
Due to the pandemic I haven’t been able to do any public appearances, so all the publicity has been done by print, online, or on various radio stations. A book signing tour of the southern states was in the planning stages, but of course, that had to be canceled. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that at some point.
How robust was Levon’s sense of humor?
Generally, Levon was all about enjoying life and having fun. As a kid, you could hear his distinctive laugh throughout the school. Ronnie Hawkins describes Levon as “the easiest one to get along with. He was always laughing and joking and cutting up. He was the funniest kid you ever saw; he’d laugh about everything.” Levon said of those days with Ronnie, “It was probably the most amount of belly laughs per day that anyone’s ever enjoyed.”
Levon’s ability to find humor in most situations continued throughout his life. Jim Weider, the guitarist who replaced Robbie in the reunited Band [Weider’s first Band tour was opening for Crosby, Stills & Nash during the summer of 1985], told me there were always a lot of laughs on the tour bus. It was the same right up to his last band. Levon’s advice to drummers was, “Most importantly, have fun. Laugh a lot and learn to play other instruments.”
To what extent is Levon’s legacy being carried on today?
As far as exploring the influence Levon had on other musicians, I had the honor of speaking with master drummers Jim Keltner [e.g. George Harrison, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan] and Steve Jordan [The Blues Brothers, Keith Richards, and John Mayer]. Jim first met Levon when The Band was recording their second album [in early 1969 the group spent two months tracking their self-titled Capitol LP in a Hollywood Hills home at 8850 Evanview Drive belonging to none other than Sammy Davis, Jr.], and after listening to the way Levon played, Jim stopped trying to be a flashy drummer and concentrated on getting the feel of the music, like Levon did. Jim told me, “Levon was a tremendous influence on not only me but so many drummers.”
Steve also talked to me about Levon’s exceptional feel as a drummer and that his interpretation of a song was magnificent. He also emphasized how unusual it is for a drummer to be able to play his instrument and sing with the independence and fluidity that Levon had [Jordan supplies drums on the last song featured on Jericho, the 12/8 shuffle “Blues Stay Away from Me.” Tooze reveals on page 294 that “Levon offered his Woodstock recording studio at no charge for the Congo Square Project, a volunteer organization that produced several CD’s to help New Orleans musicians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.” Multiple tracks include Jordan and Helm on drums. Six months after Helm’s death, Jordan paid the ultimate compliment by joining the various artists Love for Levon: A Benefit to Save the Barn concert at the 20,000-seat Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey].
And, of course, Levon was also a powerhouse vocalist, named by Rolling Stone on its 2010 list of the 100 Greatest Singers [No. 91].
It’s a testament to Levon’s talent and perseverance that in the last years of his life, battling ill health and financial problems, he roared back into the spotlight with three masterful CDs — Dirt Farmer , Electric Dirt , and Ramble at the Ryman  — each of which won a Grammy Award. Not bad for a sharecropper’s kid from Turkey Scratch.
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© Jeremy Roberts, 2020. All rights reserved. The Sandra B. Tooze interview was edited and sequenced for clarity. To touch base, email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.