Levon Helm‘s label released a statement earlier today that said simply, “Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.”
I’ve always loved Helm as a drummer, and have listened to the version of “Back to Memphis” two or three times in a row, fascinated by his light work on the cymbals. At 2:29 in this video, you can see the chopsticks he played with.
A Levon drumming story: Before Katrina, the TapeOp Conference brought producers and recording engineers to New Orleans, but it moved to Tucson, Arizona after the storm. Each year, it ended with a panel on the records that made producers want to produce, and in 2006, one producer—I wish I could remember who to give credit—gave a bravura talk on the Band’s version of “Don’t Do It” from Rock of Ages. He traced the history of the song from its roots as a minor Marvin Gaye track, and he told stories including the story behind Allen Toussaint‘s horn charts. (Legend has it that Toussaint was given a tape of the songs, but his reel-to-reel ran slightly slow, so all the charts were a step flat. The night before the show, the Band and the horn section rehearsed the whole show a step flat, then Toussaint transposed the charts to the proper keys in time for the show.)
As great as the talk was, the chilling moment came at 3:06 in the video—the drum fill coming out of the solo section. A room full of producers and engineers who had worked on albums by major artists all knew that fill and involuntarily geeked out, playing air drums along with Levon. It’s a moment that typifies the greatness of the Band as each strike in this stutter-stepped fill corresponds to a syllable Helm sings, and it propels the performance into the last minute with the kind of momentum some bands never generate in their lifetimes. It’s remarkable, and made 16-year-old fanboys out of everybody present.