As I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978) for the first time a few months ago, I was instantly fascinated by The Band’s performance of “Up on Cripple Creek” early in the film. And none of the band members caught my attention more than Levon Helm, the drummer who also does lead vocals on the song.
Helm died yesterday at the age of 71 after battling cancer. His career was remarkable, joining a band called The Hawks right after high school, touring with Bob Dylan, and developing a close relationship with people like Robbie Robertson in The Hawks (which eventually adopted the simple moniker “The Band”). In 1978 he became part of cinema history in The Last Waltz, which portrayed The Band’s last concert.
Robertson told Entertainment Weekly in 2007 how much he cherished Helm: “Levon took me under his wing. When Ronnie [Hawkins of The Hawks] was first trying me out, I think I’d just turned 16 years old. The places we were playing in, it sure wasn’t legal for me to be in there. It was great to have somebody that could teach you the ropes a little bit. We became like partners in crime.”
Helm also did plenty of acting, but his most memorable effort may be as the narrator in The Right Stuff (1983).