Levon Helm, the 71 year-old Band drummer-singer who died today in Manhattan, was one of my all-time favorite drummers. He was a kind of personal hero. I used to drum in a couple of garage-style blues bands and I half-modelled my style on his. Helm’s snare-drum and tom-tom hits were spare and minimalist — as far from flamboyant as could be imagined — but they felt just right and dependable and mathematically dead-on.
“In Mr. Helm’s drumming, muscle, swing, economy and finesse were inseparably merged,” N.Y. Times critic Jon Pareles wrote in Helm’s obit. “He gave his drums a muffled, bottom-heavy sound that placed them in the foundation of the [Band’s] arrangements, and his tom-toms were tuned so that their pitch would bend downward as the tone faded. Mr. Helm didn’t call attention to himself.”
And I loved his yokelish, back-country voice. If I’m not mistaken, Helm is the principal vocalist on “Jemima Surrender” and “Rockin’ Chair.”
I remember thinking when I saw Helm play Sissy Spacek‘s coal-miner dad in Michael Aoted‘s Coal Miner’s Daughter (’80) that he looked quite weathered for his years. He was right around 40 at the time, and he looked to be in his late ’50s or early 60s. Maybe it was just makeup.