March 6, 1981
This interview took place before a show at a now gone club Emerald City, which was just across the river from Philly in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The building was originally the legendary (originally in Philadelphia) nightclub, the Latin Casino, where people such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and others would appear. The first time I saw Ray Charles was there. Eventually it was closed and turned into a disco, and then into a rock club which kept the name and the sort of disco ambiance, sunken couches, space age bars. The cool thing was if you didn’t like the opening act, you could go into a lounge and get a drink or even into a game room. The stage was very low, and you could walk right up to it. That night, Levon had a small basic four-piece band. A little less than 14 years later, his bass player that night, Frank Campbell would end up playing bass on and producing my album.
At the time this interview happened, Levon was between albums, and also between films. His third solo album American Son had come out the year before, as had Coal Miner’s Daughter. The re-formed version of The Band wouldn’t happen until the next year. This interview happened after the show. Levon was the friendliest guy in the world. After I was brought into his dressing room, one of the owners of the club asked, “Is there anything you need?” Levon replied, “A joint would be nice.” The guy left and came back a couple of minutes later with Levon’s request fulfilled, and the interview began.
PSB: What was it like growing up in the same town as Sonny Boy Williamson? Were you aware of that when you grew up?
Levon Helm: I sure enjoyed Sonny Boy. I didn’t realize it at the time that I was on the luck end. You know I could go to town on a Saturday and run down to KFFA and see Sonny Bob and the King Biscuit Boys do their live radio broadcast. I enjoyed it. That was my main piece of business any time I was in town. Years later, of course, there’s no place like home.
What was it like when you first went to Canada with Ronnie Hawkins? That was like the very beginning of rock and roll almost.
Well, I was for sure that we had hit the big time immediately. We went from playin’ in the South playin’ club dates and dances and we were all of a sudden playin’ in night clubs and supper clubs and playin’ for mixed-drink crowds, playin’ besides weekends, so it was real nice. Canada at the time, and still is you know a great audience for music.
Some of those early Ronnie Hawkins records, now in the whole rockabilly revival, they’re becoming big collectors items. Were you on most of those?
I can’t remember. I know I played on a few of ’em, but I’m not sure. Some of ’em got released and some of ’em didn’t as they should. I’m not sure really.
There’s a couple of 45s that were done that I’ve heard like once on the radio, Levon & the Hawks on ATCO. What was the story behind them?
During the time that we played with Ronnie Hawkins, the next time that we were heard of we were playin’ with Dylan and we called ourselves Levon & The Hawks, we called ourselves the Canadian Squires. There were a couple of names–aliases that we used there. That would’ve been in about probably ’62 or ’63 maybe.
Was that just like a demo or something like that?
That was our effort at knocking on the door for a big time recording contracts.
Where does your drum style come from? You play drums different than just about anybody. There’s something about your drums that it’s a very heavy…
The first time I heard you was on the John Hammond album, So Many Roads in ’65, then I saw you when you were with Dylan before you split, and I noticed that there was a real just boom type of sound. Was that just something that came naturally to you?
I don’t know. I just do the best I can do. I’m from the Memphis area, so naturally the backbeat is supposed to sound like it’s hittin’ on a cigar box or somethin’ for me. I like a lot of wood sound with the drum. I don’t know. When you play and sing at the same time, you don’t have a whole lot of control over it a lot of times. You’ve got to kind of phrase with the beat and vice versa. So I don’t know. I thank you for sayin’ that though. It’s a pleasure. I’ll keep tryin’.
Even tonight when I was watching you on “The Weight,” I almost felt as if the way to describe it was almost as if you were playing like the melody of the tune on the drums.
Well you know drummers aren’t limited to just the pulse and the feel and the time. You can play the lyric of the tune. It’s a lot of fun. I have to when I sing with it though.
On your solo records you’ve gone for a much more straight rock and roll sound than all the different kind of sounds that The Band was into incorporating. Are you going to continue in that direction or would you like to have a thing where you can experiment more?
Musically I like to go back to what my roots are which is just basically country and rock and roll music. I like experimenting. A song of that caliber seems to fit me better. I don’t deny myself the pleasure of daydreaming myself right into a studio full of strings and the horn players sometime in the future when I can get a little wider between the ears.
When you played the mandolin tonight — it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you play the mandolin — I was thinking about back on the very first Band tour and maybe the second Band tour, when you did some of the songs from the Basement Tapes, and all you guys would switch instruments, there was just something about it, and then later on that didn’t happen as much. I was wondering if you ever felt that it would’ve been nice if you could get in a touring situation where you could just like more relaxed instead of just going out and playing the albums or what you thought the hits were.
We used to do that musical chairs thing. We would switch around and it was always a lot of fun. It gave our rhythm section different textures and different feelings to it. But I always felt we were doing it to feature Garth Hudson because as you know Garth plays everything real well and we switch around and get Garth up and he’d play accordion or play tenor or some other instrument. But I like a relaxed feeling more. I’d rather wing it than to have a straight set.
On your latest record you do what is perhaps the closest thing to a straight country & western tune, I ever heard you do, “Blue House of Broken Hearts.” I was wondering if you ever considered doing a straight country album?
Anything I do is gonna naturally have country in it, but I don’t think so. I’m not opposed to it, I just can’t hardly keep the rock and roll out of anything I do. But “Blue House of Broken Hearts” to me, I wouldn’t call that country and western. I don’t know what you would call it but……
I don’t know. It sounded like something George Jones would sing.
I’d love to hear him do it.
Where you’re from is right across from the Mississippi Delta, do you feel that the Mississippi River has some kind of mystical effect on music? There’s so much music that’s come off of towns….
It could be. Stranger things have certainly happened. I know that up and down the river there for some reason it sure does seem to blossom real well. Memphis, St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago, all the towns up and down the river. I know that the Memphis area; Jackson, Mississippi; Shreveport, Louisiana; New Orleans; Houston, Texas; there’s always been record companies and recordings. And I can’t ever remember a time when it was just absolutely dead. So that might have something to do with it as much the river.