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Born in 1940 in Marvell, Arkansas, Mark Lavon Helm first picked up the guitar at age 8. But after seeing a marching band at a State Fair, he quickly fell in love with the drums as well – eventually making the skins his favourite instrument. He formed his first group, The Jungle Bush Beaters while still in high school and played various fairs and just about anything else that would give them some exposure. Though his Dixieland roots obviously gave him a love for the blues and ragtime music, it was after seeing an Elvis concert that he became hooked on early rock & roll. His other influences soon included the likes of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, blues legends Robert Johnson & Sonny Boy Williamson and everyone he heard every week on The Grand Ol’ Opry’s radio broadcasts. It was this wide array of influences that would become his trademark in his own music. He moved to Memphis at 17 and began sitting in on recording sessions with Conway Twitty.
Before long he’d caught the attention of rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, a fellow Arkansas native. He joined his group The Hawks, who already had 2 records to their credit. In ’58 they travelled to Toronto for a series of shows. Their sound was fresh and well-received, prompting Hawkins to relocate to Canada full-time. One by one the Hawks got homesick and went back South, except Helm. Within months Hawkins had hired what would turn out to be The Band.
As Hawkins‘ band, they cut three records on Roulette Records before leaving the nest to venture on their own in 1964. They cut a number of singles under the names Levon & The Hawks and The Canadian Squires before being hired as Bob Dylan’s backup band for his new electric live show in ’66. But again by 1969 they were on their own, known now simply as The Band. Along with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel they’d go on to totally revolutionize the Canadian music scene, blending rhythm & blues with folk and rockabilly, earning 5 gold records in the process on the back of such classics as “The Weight”, “Shape I’m In”, “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” (also turned gold by Joan Baez) , “Caldonia” and “Rag Mama Rag”.
Outside interests and personality conflicts had the members go their seperate ways by the end of 1976. Helm came back less than a year later with The RCO All Stars on Edsel Records. Appropriately named, The All Stars consistedof Booker T (of the MG’s), Paul Butterfield, Dr John, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, Steve Cropper and cameos by ex-Band mates Hudson & Robertson. The bluesy ‘good times r&b’ album consisted partially of tracks written by Dr John, as well as covers of BB King’s “Sing Sing Sing”, Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” and the soulful “Rain Down Tears”.
He released his first true ‘solo’ album a year later. Again the self-titled album garnered favourable reviews as a record which was true to the artist’s influences. With more of an emphasis on horns than the RCO All Stars record the year before, it featured all covers, including Allen Toussaint’s jazz-flavoured “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)”, the soulful country ballad “I Came Here To Party” and “Standing On A Mountain Top” by Ernie & Earl Cate, who would go on to play on a number of records with Helm over the years.
Helm then ventured into acting and filmscores, highlighted by his role as Loretta Lynn’s father in 1979’s ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, for which he contributed a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”. Impromptu recording sessions for the soundtrack led to AMERICAN SON, his next record released a year later. Other highlights on the stripped-down ‘country-meets soul’ record included Roy Rogers’ “America’s Farm” and Harley Howard’s “Watermelon Time In Georgia”.
1980 also saw Helm on the big screen in ‘Carny’, which also co-starred fellow Band-mate Robbie Robertson. After the demise of ABC Records, which was the parent company of Edsel Records, he signed with Muscle Shoals Sound, an affiliate of Capitol Records. His second self-titled lp appeared in ’82. Though favourably reviewed by the critics, execs didn’t promote the album with any enthusiasm and it never charted, despite his cover of Johnny Otis’ “Willie & The Hand Jive” being heralded as one of the better versions to make it to vinyl. The European album release also contained a cover of Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues”.
Helm spent the next decade pretty much out of sight all together, occasionally re-surfacing in cameos on the big screen or on stage or record with friends. He got back with Garth Hudson & Richard Danko in 1993 to release The Band reunion-lp JERICHO to much critical praise. Since Robertson declined the reunion and Manuel had committed suicide in ’86, they relied on friends & session musicians to round out the cast. Part of the solution was to use members from The Crowmatix, a Woodstock-based group which closely followed The Band in musical stylings.
A second album featuring the same line-up (more or less) saw its release in 1996 with HIGH ON THE HOG. This led to Helm releasing SOUVENIR, VOLUME 1 with The Crowmatix in ’97 on the independent Woodstock Records – owned by member Aaron Hurwitz. Nothing overly ground-breaking, it was a combination of studio jam sessions and live recordings, including The Band classic “Rag Mama Rag”. The record also featured Helm’s daughter Amy on her first recording.
Australia’s Raven Records issued THE TIES THAT BIND in 1999, a greatest hits compilation with a twist. A culmination of solo singles, tracks recorded with Ringo Starr’s All Star Band & The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, originally it contained a version of “The Weight” which was credited to Ringo Starr et al, but in fact it was the version from The Band‘s LAST WALTZ with The Staple Singers. The album was soon pulled from the shelves and the proper version included.
On April 17, 2012, Helm’s wife and daughter announced on his website that he was “in the final stages of his battle with cancer” and thanked fans while requesting prayers. Helm died two days later on April 19, 2012, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.