Original Publication: Newsweek – October 31, 1977
It’s not easy to face up to the ripe old age of 35 in the world of the rock star. For those who have remained in the limelight at least a decade, the choice is to decide whether to go on much as before – as Mick Jagger is doing, though a bit decrepitly – or to change direction. Last year, The Band, Bob Dylan’s first electric back-up group, decided to call it quits except for making records. Soon afterward, Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer and lead singer on such rock heavies as “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” decided to go forward by looking back.
He gathered a group of premier musicians from the ‘60s who shared with him a strong musical identity with the roots of rock – black, country and bluesy. The result is Helm’s first solo album, “Levon Helm,” for ABC Records, a delightful treat of tasty blues all wrapped up in good old rock ‘n’ roll. Helm’s band, the RCO All Stars (the initials stand for “our company”), which will tour with him next month, is a loose cooperative of eleven long-distance players all aged “at least 34 or 35.” They play some artfully arranged old tunes like “Milk Cow Boogie” and Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” on the album, but they concentrate on new blues songs.
Heightened by Helm’s haunting voice – which so vividly shaped the lyrical landscapes of The Band’s music – this simpler stuff, such as the infectious “Washer Woman” by Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack and Booker T. Jones’s soulful “You Got Me,” is fresh and joyous. “Maybe I don’t extend the rock tradition,” says Helm, “But I want to hold it up till somebody can.” The album is deftly orchestrated with Memphis-influenced horns and RCO All Star Paul Butterfield’s Chicago-based blues harp. Most of all, it reflects the sense of place that defines Helm’s musical sensibility. “All of the members of the band grew up along the Mississippi River,” says Helm. “And in terms of the blues, Chicago is a side of it.”
Better With Age: Helm, 36, grew up in Phillips County, Ark., in the same Deep South that spawned Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. He first heard his heroes sing on radio’s “King Biscuit Time,” and the early influences remain the lasting ones. “I don’t worry about getting old,” says Helm. “Ray Charles sings better than he ever has. You get better as you get older. I can play songs now that I couldn’t even hear five years ago.”
Not surprising, Helm is passing on his sense of roots to a new generation. At a recent picnic behind his big, rustic Southern-style house and studio in Woodstock, N.Y., the opening act was a moppet rock band that featured the terrifyingly precocious 6 ½-year-old Amy Helm wielding the microphone, singing and shaking her booty. Her 11-year-old brother, Ezra, was playing guitar and nonchalantly tuning the amps between songs. “I’m trying to make sure they hear the right things on the jukebox – lots of Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson,” says Helm. “Music is medicine, and if the doctor is going to make house calls, he better know how to play.”
This article is typed from the original material. Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.