Listen to this track by Canadian-American modern roots music architects The Band, here featuring the impossibly funky drummer-singer Levon Helm. It’s “Don’t Do It” as taken from the landmark 1972 live album Rock of Ages, a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition originally recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1964, but utterly redefined here by Helm and his bandmates.
This version of the song was released as a single, scoring #34 on the Billboard top 100. More importantly, it would become a live staple for the group into the 1970s, featuring most prominently in the milestone farewell concert The Last Waltz as a closing number, and an opening number to Martin Scorcese’s film of the same name.
But, what makes the Band’s take on the song so special is largely down to Helm, on one of his most distinct vocal spotlights, weaving in and out with Rick Danko’s burbling bassline, Richard Manuel‘s ‘rhythm piano’, Garth Hudson’s organic sonic colours, Robbie Robertson’s tearaway guitar stabs, and of course the horns, arranged by Allen Toussaint.
Among other things of course is that this song is one of the key documents that proves not only how potent the Band were as a live unit, and about their uniqueness in general. It also demonstrates something about Levon Helm as a musician.
First, let’s talk about that drumming style. One of the most compelling things about Levon Helm as a drummer was how he could play both lazily and precisely at the same time. When listening to his lines, it’s almost like he’s just about to miss the beat, and then hits it just in time, at the last possible second. This could be because his vocal phrasing was so entwined with his drumming, his voice also being a langourous, yet forceful instrument.
And what about that voice? On this track, Levon’s ability to wring emotion out of his delivery – frustration, sadness, anger all in one – is a good indication that he would also become an actor, post-Band. This was his strength as a vocalist, singing lasciviously on “Up On Cripple Creek” and “Rag Mama Rag”, wearily on “The Weight”, poignantly on “All La Glory”, joyfully on “Ophelia”, or mournfully on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. He understood the emotional undercurrents of the material, and delivered them as a singer.
He also understood how seemingly disparate strains of American music intersect. This has, perhaps, to do with where he came from, which is roughly where most modern American popular music was born as well; The American South. His experience as a kid in the South with midnight rambles and traveling shows, famously described by Helm in interviews in The Last Waltz film, helped him to make the connections between these strains of music even before he himself became a professional musician. By the time he was on the road with the Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, blues, country, and pop music all mixing and melding in together became his standard, which would then become the template for The Band as well.
He would of course re-invent the Midnight Ramble many years later, well after his success as a member of the Band, and around the time he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer at the end of the 1990s. At his home in Woodstock New York, the region where the Band was born, he’s held Midnight Ramble shows of his own on a monthly basis from that time until the present, featuring a selection of guest musicians that have included Emmylou Harris, Garth Hudson, Bruce Hornsby, Donald Fagen, Shemeka Copeland, My Morning Jacket, Hubert Sumlin, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, and many, many others.
The Rambles have been a means for Levon to stay in shape as a musician, reducing the number of weeks out on the road, and while also funding his medical bills. The shows began to take on a life of their own, helping him to fund a couple of new solo records; Dirt Farmer in 2007, and Electric Dirt in 2009, both of which won Grammies. He even documented a version of the Ramble shows on 2011’s Ramble At The Ryman, recorded live at the classic Ryman Theatre in Nashville.
Levon Helm built up his own latter-day success out of less-than-ideal circumstances. In this, Helm was a fighter the whole way, kicking against his disease, and fighting it with his best weapon; his love for music in many forms, and with plenty of family, friends and fellow musicians around him to help him realize it.
I had the distinct honour of seeing Levon Helm and his band when they came to Vancouver last year. His performance that night felt like an act of defiance, coming from a man who was thought never to sing again after his diagnosis years before. Yet, there he was, and there we were hearing him. At one point, a woman in the audience yelled out “I love you, Levon!”, to which Levon raspily and exuberantly replied in his distinct southern tones, “I love you too, honey!”
I’ll never forget that.
And maybe in this sense it wasn’t really about defiance at all. He did it for love.
Goodbye, Levon. And thank you.
For more information and community, check out Levon Helm on Facebook.
Also, check out the documentary made about Levon Helm, Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm.