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Levon Helm, key member of The Band, dead at age 71

Thursday - 4/19/2012, 8:22pm  ET

By HILLEL ITALIE
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Much of the Band's innovative sound was born in the "Big Pink."

It was a house in idyllic Woodstock, N.Y., rented for $125 a week and nicknamed for its distinctive pink paint job. The group would gather for hours at a time to create songs. Musicians would walk by a typewriter on the kitchen table, dash off a verse or two to a song, and wander off. A microphone once was placed on top of the hot-water heater in the basement. Although they lived in other houses nearby, the Big Pink became the place for them to live communally and make music.

In an age of war, riots and assassinations, the Band lived out a dream of simpler times. They dressed plainly, played tightly and did not upstage each other. The tall, lanky Robbie Robertson was an expert blues-rock guitarist and the group's best lyricist, his songs inspired in part by Bob Dylan and by his travels through the American South. The baby-faced Rick Danko was a fluid bassist and accomplished singer. The bearish Garth Hudson was an ingenious keyboardist of uncommon wit and emotion, while the sad-eyed Richard Manuel's haunting falsetto on "Whispering Pines," "Tears of Rage" and others led drummer Levon Helm to call him the group's lead singer.

But for many Band admirers, honors belonged to Helm, whose life spanned and helped tell the history of rock `n' roll, whose voice called back to the earliest days of American song.

The short, scrappy Helm, who died Thursday at age 71, had a bold tenor once likened to a town crier calling a meeting to order. He not only sang "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," but inhabited it, becoming the Confederate Virgil Caine, "hungry, just barely alive"; his brother killed by the Yankees; the South itself in ruins. It was the kind of heartbreaking, complicated story and performance that had even Northerners rooting for the proud and desperate Virgil. Helm was also the musical leader on stage, and played drums loose-limbed and funky, shoulders hunched, head to the side when he sang.

In some ways, the Band was the closest this country ever came to the camaraderie and achievement of the Beatles. They were a quintessential American group, but only Helm came from the United States. The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Mark Lavon (he later changed it "Levon"), Helm was born in Elaine, Ark., in 1940. He grew up around music and witnessed rock's early days, seeing Elvis Presley perform before he was famous. The Helm family enjoyed listening to the Grand Ole Opry and Helm saw his first live show at age 6 _ bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. He would later say the experience "tattooed" his brain.

By age 9, Helm's father had bought him a guitar and soon Levon was hanging out at a local station, KFFA, watching bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson host his radio show. As a teenager, he performed with his sister, Linda, and saw Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and other founding rock stars in concert.

Watching Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer inspired Helm to play drums, too. He sat in occasionally with Conway Twitty's group and formed his own band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. When Hawkins came to town, looking for a drummer, Helms signed on, but only after promising his parents he would finish high school. Hawkins had a handful of hits, notably "Mary Lou" and "Forty Days," but his musicians tired of Hawkins' strict control and endless rehearsing and left in the early `60s.

With Levon in charge, they recorded a few singles as the Hawks or "Levon and the Hawks." They played gigs in virtually empty venues _ most notably, they would allege, a show at the Dallas club run by Jack Ruby, the man who shot and killed President Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Their break came when they met Dylan, who was anxious to switch from folk to full-out rock and immediately clicked with the Hawks.

Playing behind Dylan around the United States and in Europe, they were unknown and unidentified. But their sound was so strong that critics and audience members wanted to learn more. Helm was along only part of the time. Frustrated by the boos from Dylan's folk admirers, who accused their hero of selling out, he stayed home while Dylan and company played in Europe, with Mickey Jones and Bobby Gregg filling in on drums.

All were reunited in 1967. Dylan had quit the road after a reported motorcycle accident and settled in the small community of Woodstock in upstate New York, two years before the celebrated concerts made it an international attraction. For much of 1967, he and the Hawks _ who would soon rename themselves the Band in part because people kept referring to Dylan's backing musicians as "The Band" _ recorded informally, for their own pleasure. While the Beatles and others were experimenting with backwards tape loops and psychedelic lyrics, Dylan and the Band were singing chain-gang songs, country standards, and ballads from Appalachia. Dylan, with Band members occasionally helping, also completed original numbers such as "I Shall be Released" and "Tears of Rage." Before "The Basement Tapes" came out officially, in 1975, they were bootlegged endlessly and also covered by the Byrds, Manfred Mann and others. Many tracks remain unreleased.

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