Today would’ve been Levon Helm‘s 72nd birthday. Such a weird, humbling sentence to write. Following his death on April 19, my original plan was to survey his entire career, which in retrospect was absurdly ambitious. I still may do some smaller version of that, but the survey vacuum was quickly filled by the internet, with dozens of moving tributes neatly summarizing his life and music. My favorite is Charles M. Pierce’s piece in Esquire, Whip to Grave: Levon Helm, the Real Voice of America. It’s an elegy to The Band as much as “Levon, in whose voice we all got our country back again.” Well said and amen.
Despite the internet’s exhaustive reach, I think one part of Helm’s life continues to be undervalued: all the stuff that happened before he left for Canada in May 1958 with Ronnie Hawkins. Levon is virtually alone amongst the 1960s rock royalty in having actual experience with first generation rock ‘n’ rollers and rock ‘n’ roll’s precursors*. Born in 1940, he grew up in Phillips County, Arkansas, about 80 miles southwest of Memphis. It was there he watched bluegrass, country, R&B, blues, and traces of the old-time medicine show turn into first rockabilly, and then rock ‘n’ roll. And you know how I know all this? Levon says so repeatedly in his glorious autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. If you haven’t read it, it’s a must-own. And by must-own I mean sacred text.
* Only Doug Sahm has a comparable childhood to Levon. Little Doug was a child prodigy who mastered the triple-neck pedal steel guitar when he was barely out of diapers. He appeared on San Antonio radio and TV in the 1940s, sat in with Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, and Faron Young in the 1950s, and played the Louisiana Hayride before Elvis.
So, let us celebrate the man’s 72nd birthday by paying tribute to his roots. After all, the roots of Levon Helm are the roots of rock itself. The primordial roots, with delta soil between its toes, a heavy, humid funk in the air, and sweet tea an arm’s length away. Let’s crack open a few cold ones and watch rock ‘n’ roll being invented. Levon will set the scene, I’ll just fill it out a little.
Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys – Blue Moon Of Kentucky
Recorded September 16, 1946
Bill Monroe – mandolin, tenor harmony
Lester Flatt – guitar, lead vocals
Earl Scruggs – banjo
Chubby Wise – fiddle
Howard Watts (aka Cedric Rainwater) – bass
If I think back, I can still hear faint echoes of “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” on our family radio. We’d have to buy a battery two and a half feet long and maybe eight inches thick; a big, heavy damn thing! From about 4:30 in the afternoon on, I was so close to that radio that my memories are of the rest of the family behind me.
Going to music shows was high-level entertainment for our family. They’d set up tents at the edge of Marvell (Arkansas) and have a stage, folding chairs, and refreshments. The first show I remember was Bill Monroe And His Blue Grass Boys on a summer evening in 1946, when I was six years old. Boy, this really tattooed my brain. I’ve never forgotten it.
Bill had a real good five-piece band. They took that old hillbilly music, sped it up, and basically invented what is now known as bluegrass music: the bass in its place, the mandolin above it, the guitar tying the two together, and the violin on top, playing the long notes to make it sing. The banjo backed the whole thing up, answering everybody. We heard Bill Monroe regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, but here he was in the flesh. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were in the band when I saw them. That was the end of cowboys and Indians for me. When I got home I held the broom sideward and strutted past the barn, around the pump, and out to the watermelon patch, pretending to play the guitar. I was hooked.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, pp. 19-20
Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys – Blue Grass Special
Recorded February 13, 1945
Bill Monroe – mandolin
Tex Willis – guitar
Chubby Wise – fiddle
David “Stringbean” Akeman – banjo
Sally Ann Forrester – accordion
Bill Westbrook – bass
While the Flatt & Scruggs era of Bill Monroe (late 1945-early 1948) is justifiably lauded as the big bang of bluegrass, it’s instructive to go back 19 months to an earlier incarnation of the Blue Grass Boys. There’s only one common sideman, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and one of the boys is actually a girl, Sally Ann Forrester on the oddball (for Monroe) accordion. But, what’s most striking about this track is how much it anticipates rock ‘n’ roll, a good decade before that name would become a nationwide reference point. The interplay of Tex Willis’ bluesy guitar, Monroe’s bluesy mandolin, and Bill Westbrook’s thumping bass is a direct antecedent to Elvis‘ early records with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. In fact, Bill Monroe’s mandolin solo from 1:47-2:00 could be Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, or Carl Perkins on lead guitar. Not for nothing was “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” Elvis’ first B-side.
Everyone’s favorite (traveling show) was the F.S. Walcott Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels from, I believe, Biloxi, Mississippi. Posters and handbills announcing the shows would go up weeks in advance. They’d set up with the back of a big truck as their stage. They had a nine-piece house band down in front of the stage, a fast-talking master of ceremonies, a good-looking mulatto chorus line, blackface comedians, and singers. This was like another world for us kids.
Let me interrupt real quick to point out a couple things: 1) I realize that “mulatto” is not exactly preferred nomenclature these days and 2) The idea of blackface is only slightly less appalling than leaving toddlers in hot cars. That said, let us all take a deep breath and remember that Levon is reminiscing about the late ’40s and early ’50s when Americans weren’t as enlightened as they like to think they are now. OK then.
I’d stare at the drummer all night because with those horns and that full rhythm section, the drums always looked like the best seat in the house. The sound of the cymbals and the snare drum popping was synonymous in my mind with Saturday night and good times. F.S. Walcott had a fantastic left-handed drummer, whom I’d study as closely as I could from my seat. This was a problem in those days of segregation because the audience was split down the middle by an aisle. On the left were the black to light-skinned folks, while the light-skinned to people with red hair sat on the right. The left-handed drummer sat on my right, which put his tom-toms between me and him. So he’s working the snare drums in front of him, favoring the band, and as he’s getting ready to roll he’s coming right around toward me. I’m sitting two rows back at the most. I’m probably in the front row, in fact, studying what he’s doing for the whole two hour show. I’m naturally right-handed, but people have always told me that I play left-handed. If I have any technique at all, that’s where it comes from.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, pp. 20-21
To my knowledge, there’s no video of “The Foots” and let’s face it, this is probably for the best. Minstrel shows + Jim Crow South + 2012 perspective = “Is that motherfucker in blackface?!?!” Fact is, minstrel shows were a force in American culture from the 1840s through the 1940s, making Levon one of the last generation of southerners to experience this art form first hand? Look, we all know about America’s racist past. Some choose to ignore it, others (academics, historians, e.g.) shine a white-hot spotlight on it. But, whatever you want to say about the morality of minstrel shows, thousands of formidable black musicians passed through their ranks in those hundred years, some of whom profoundly shaped blues, R&B, and eventually rock ‘n’ roll.
“I played with that show (F.S. Walcott Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels) for two seasons. I’d be glad when school was out so I could go with the minstrel show. We played all through the South, and we came up as far as St. Louis. During that time, I met some very great musicians — some musicians that went on to great fame.“
—Louis Jordan, liner notes to Let The Good Times Roll: The Anthology 1938-53
Louis Jordan is the single most important pre-rock ‘n’ roll artist, the sturdiest bridge between big band swing and rock ‘n’ roll, and anyone who disputes this assertion is out of their goddamn mind. His joyous jump blues was beyond commercially successful. Between 1942-50, Louis Jordan occupied the #1 position on the R&B charts for 113 weeks, or 2 1/2 years out of a possible 8! Talk about dominance. More importantly, his music directly and profoundly influenced Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley, without whom there is no rock ‘n’ roll. Another musician who cut his teeth on Jordan records was a fella named Chuck Berry. You may remember him from such activities as inventing rock ‘n’ roll guitar. Well, here’s Louis Jordan and his guitarist, Carl Hogan, paving the way for a country boy named Johnny B. Goode.
Louis Jordan And His Tympany Five – Ain’t That Just Like A Woman
Recorded January 23, 1946
Louis Jordan – vocals, alto sax
Aaron Izenhall – trumpet
Josh Jackson – tenor sax
Wild Bill Davis – piano
Carl Hogan – electric guitar
Jesse “Po” Simpkins – bass
Eddie Byrd – drums
Carl Hogan throws down the CB template — which Chuck has graciously acknowledged — and then adds a killer proto-rock ‘n’ roll solo from 2:16-2:32. Lyrically, the song is misogynistic, but isn’t that perfect for a Chuck Berry prototype? Besides, you cannot deny the clever wit and delivery, with Lot’s wife and Marie Antoinette getting salty and cakey comeuppance, respectively. Jordan’s genius wasn’t necessarily his prowess on alto sax, though he was a solid player, but his command of the stage and a universal likability that totally translates to 2012. I’m not saying you’ll want to immediately download his entire catalog, but you should at least own a Best Of which you can get used for a whopping $6-7. Don’t be an asshole.
Muddy Waters & The Band – Caldonia
Winterland, San Francisco
Recorded November 25, 1976, for The Last Waltz
Let us take one of the greatest rock bands ever, add arguably the most important blues singer of the 20th century, and have them collaborate at one of the most famous concerts of all-time. They’ll do “Mannish Boy” and one other song. They can literally choose anything, especially given the blues singer’s deep catalog. What’s that? They’re gonna cover a Louis Jordan song? Oh, OK. If you’re already a Jordan fan you’re nodding your head knowingly. If you were unfamiliar with Jordan before this post, why are you not at Amazon buying an LJ comp? You have no excuses.
After Robert Johnson was killed in 1938 — allegedly poisoned by a jealous husband — Sonny Boy (Williamson) teamed up with Robert’s stepson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and kept Johnson’s music alive. Around 1941 they began regular broadcasts on the Interstate Grocery Company’s King Biscuit Time show on KFFA in Helena. Sonny Boy blew harp and Robert Jr. played electric guitar. It was the first time many delta residents — and that might’ve included Muddy Waters — had ever heard (electric guitar).
Sonny Boy in person was a powerful, extremely impressive man, in overalls and a straw hat. His huge mouth had calloused lips from years of playing the harp. When I first saw him, I noticed he sang into his harmonica. Sonny Boy’s voice passed through the metal harp and came out sharpened like a straight razor before it hit the microphone, giving the song an extra metallic jolt of energy. I remember the feel of that music vividly. It had a twang to it, a whip, punching straight ahead. Sonny Boy overpowered you with his amplified open-air country R&B.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, pp. 25-26
Sonny Boy Williamson – Don’t Start Me Talkin’
Recorded August 12, 1955
Sonny Boy Williamson – vocals, harmonica
Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers – guitar
Otis Spann – piano
Willie Dixon – bass
Fred Below – drums
Of course, developing simultaneously with Louis Jordan’s fancypants jump blues was its unkempt and surly rural cousin, country blues. “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” was cut at Williamson’s first session for Checker Records — an offshoot of Chess — and actually reached #3 on the R&B charts. And how about that backing band??? Yeah, I guess those guys are pretty good. “Talkin'” is probably best known these days through the New York Dolls cover from Too Much Too Soon, at which blues purists may scoff. However, there’s a certain historical irony at play. Where the Dolls were taking the blues and mutating it into proto-punk, those first generation rockabillies in and around Memphis were taking the blues and mutating it into rock ‘n’ roll. As I’ve said many times before, this is how music is supposed to work. Certainly, the young Levon Helm wasn’t particularly interested in maintaining some non-existent blues purity. In fact, that purity was being compromised in front of his own eyes.
Our early career (early-to-mid 1950s) coincided with the birth of rock and roll. We literally watched it happen in our part of the country. Traditionally, white people played country music and black people played the blues. But in the ’30s, white musicians like my dad began to sing the blues with a twang and it became something else with a different bump to it. That was the seed. Then in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Muddy Waters came out with the first electric R&B band and a string of R&B hits — “She Loves Me,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Wanna Make Love To You,” “Got My Mojo Working” — that appealed to black and white people alike where we lived. Over at KFFA, the radio people noticed that telephone requests for Sonny Boy Williamson were as likely to come from the ladies at the white beauty parlor as from the black.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, p 36
Garth Hudson & Levon Helm – Don’t Start Me Talkin’
How is this cut off at 1:02?!?! This is so unbelievably awesome, Levon is such a soulful cat, that not having the rest of this clip make Hulk wanna smash. COME ON, INTERNET!!!
That oversight notwithstanding, isn’t this cover a perfect case of the roots (and genius) of Levon Helm? Southern white guy covering a southern black guy, taking a stone cold blues song and making it a country blues crossover. Hell, that’s rock ‘n’ roll! Speaking of which …
Cut to the chase: 1954 and 70 miles north in Memphis, where Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records and Sun Studios, is looking for a white boy who can sing and move like a Negro. Within the space of two years, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded at Sun Studios, and a new era began. It was country music, all right, but it had that good black backbeat in there as well.
I think Bob Evans took us to the Catholic Club in Helena to see Elvis’ show. It was just Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar, and Bill Black on standup “doghouse” bass. No drums. There was a law that said you couldn’t have a drummer in a place where drinks were served. Well, it was just a madhouse. Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and his band were also on the show, and they were great, but when the kids saw Elvis they went crazy. The girls were jumping up and down and squealing at Elvis in his pink jacket and jet-black hair, and he was wiggling and dancing during Scotty Moore’s electric guitar solos, played with thumb and finger on the bass strings while his other fingers picked the melody with lots of echo and reverb.
It was fantastic, early rockabilly, always circling and real bouncy, with an almost jazz feel to it. The kids around us were screaming so loud it was hard to focus on what the musicians were doing; all I remember is they were rockin’ down. It was hot. It was crackin’. Bill Black was playing the down beat on the pull of a bass string, then double-slapping the strings against the fretboard to hit the backbeat. At a break in the music he’d spin the bass and Elvis would kick out his leg as he delivered the punch line of “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” I remember Scotty’s grin as he helped Bill bring the song back in while my own feet were tapping the deck with a life of their own. Elvis was absolutely great.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, pp 36-37
Elvis Presley – Good Rockin’ Tonight
September 10, 1954
Elvis Presley – vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar
Scotty Moore – electric lead guitar
Bill Black – standup bass
Elvis came back a few months later, much changed. I think this must have been early 1955. We drove over to Marianna, Arkansas, where he was playing the high school auditorium. Only this time, Bill Black was playing an electric bass and D.J. Fontana was on drums. Boy, DJ just about knocked the lights out. People wanted to dance, but they were sort of chained to their chairs, so they jumped up, rocked a few beats, sat back down, and stamped their feet.
This was about the best band I’d heard up to that time. D.J. Fontana planted those drums down and started stacking verses against one another with his fills, building up to the solos, riding the solos in and riding them out again. He had incredible technique and fast hands, so he could deploy those Buddy Rich press rolls whenever he wanted to. He played like a big band drummer — full throttle. Now Elvis had a real foundation, some architecture, and he made the most of it. DJ set Elvis free.
At the same time, that electric bass changed the whole rhythm section. Those two electric instruments really nailed that music down. Up till then, when Scotty wanted to bend his guitar strings to make them cry, the whole bottom fell out of the music. but with that electric bass carrying the load, Scotty could reach up and fill the gap during the solos. The effect was devastating, the birth of rock and roll. The other reason the electric bass caught on pretty quickly as that you didn’t have to tie that doghouse bass to the top of the Cadillac anymore. And suddenly your bass player wasn’t a cripple from trying to play that damn standup!
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, pp 37-38
Elvis Presley – I Got A Woman
Robinson Auditorium, Little Rock, AR
May 16, 1956
Elvis Presley – vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar
Scotty Moore – electric lead guitar
Bill Black – standup bass
D.J. Fontana – drums
I wish this recording didn’t sound like shit. Stupid mid-’50s technology. Regardless, this is a great document of Elvis at his peak, and as part of a quartet with D.J. Fontana. Levon mentions Black playing an electric bass, but here it’s obviously a standup. But, Fontana is the real deal. Listen for the aformentioned press roll from 2:02-2:04. Though he doesn’t mention it in the book, this show had to have been on Levon’s radar in 1956. After all, Little Rock is only 100 miles from Marvell.
Later in 1955, Elvis left Sun Records to sign with RCA. Our opportunities to see him locally diminished as his growing fame took him farther afield. But there was no shortage of great bands to fill the gap. On any weekend you might have your pick of Jerry Lee’s band, Billy Riley, or our own Phillips County hero, Harold Jenkins, before he was known by his stage name, Conway Twitty.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, p. 38
UPDATE: If you like early Elvis, you really need to pick up Elvis ’56 (Amazon). It’s a fascinating documentary of Presley’s transition year, when he went from regional star to American phenomenon. Aside from all the priceless footage, another upside is that the narrator will sound comfortably familiar. His name: Levon Helm.
Conway Twitty – Rock House [Demo]
Recorded Summer 1956
Conway Twitty – vocals, handclaps
Jimmy Ray Paulman – lead guitar
Bill Harris – bass
Billy Weir – drums
Recorded at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips, this later ended up in the Roy Orbison repertoire. But, this version is badass! Jimmy Ray Paulman sounds like a precursor to James Burton with that sweet rockabilly chicken pickin … and obviously both men owe a huge debt of gratitude to Scotty Moore. In a way, Conway Twitty’s career paralleled Levon’s. Both men started out playing rock ‘n’ roll, including both sides of the country/R&B equation, but found their niche in separate, though adjacent genres. Where Helm went from that early rock ‘n’ roll base to rock, Twitty went from rockabilly and R&B to country. More on that in a bit.
In 1957 the rock and roll craze was at its explosive peak. In January, we all watched Elvis sing “Don’t Be Cruel” on The Ed Sullivan Show. They let him be seen only from the waist up, but it changed America anyway. Elvis was tame compared to Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, who had come up to Memphis from Louisiana as a piano player and emerged a rock and roll star. I’ll never forget the first time I heard that snare drum on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Jerry Lee’s drummer, Jimmy Van Eaton, had taped a cigar box to the top of the snare; he carried the backbeat and played his fills right on the cigar box without any metallic overring. That was Memphis tuning. If you tuned down that snare, you could play it loud without sounding like someone dropping a damn stove. It sounded so good, it made me want to start playing drums.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, p. 40
Jerry Lee Lewis – Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
Recorded February 1957
Jerry Lee Lewis – vocals, piano
Roland Janes – guitar
J.M. Van Eaton – drums
OK, so you’ve heard this song a million times and it no longer makes you wanna stand in one spot and wiggle around just a little bit. Fine. But, have you ever listened to the song with just the drummer in mind? Of course not. So, you can thank Levon for placing this song in a new context. In fact, Van Eaton was one of the more distinctive drummers of that early rock ‘n’ roll era.
In a great interview with the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Van Eaton discussed the origin of his drum sound: “You got to realize that back then, you only had maybe five microphones, and they were not all on the drums the way they are now. You had one mic on the snare that picked up the hi-hat, the cymbals, and the whole nine yards. Then you had one mic on the bass drum and the upright bass at the same time. Then there was the mic the singer was using, and the mic the guitar player was on, and maybe if there was a piano player, you had him miked. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Sun studio, but it’s a fairly small room. And, in order to keep all this from bleeding over into other microphones, especially the drums into the vocal mic, we’d try to deaden it. We weren’t doing it as a ‘style’ to play in, but mainly as a way to keep the drum from bleeding over everywhere. It turned out to be a pretty good little deal though.”
One of the things that made Levon a great drummer was his ability to listen to the other musicians. It was a band thing, not just a Band thing. This is also what makes his autobiography an insightful read. When the legacy of Jerry Lee Lewis is addressed it’s more than a list of his hits, and boy that Jerry Lee sure was a great frontman, let’s jagger on about him for awhile. Helm discusses J.M. Van Eaton like he discussed D.J. Fontana. In fact, remember what he said of Fontana, “Now Elvis had a real foundation, some architecture, and he made the most of it.” The same could be said of Levon’s narrative style. If there’s a meta-lesson of This Wheel’s on Fire, it’s that it’s instructive to look at our favorite music from the inside out. Helm always called the drum kit the best seat in the house. Well, this book is written from that perspective and there’s enormous value in that.
I was riding in a truck with Mutt Cagle and Fireball Carter the first time I heard Little Richard’s “Keep A Knockin'” on the radio. I almost drove off the road to Turkey Scratch because I was beating on the steering wheel so hard. That rhythm knocked me flat, and still does. The Jungle Bush Beaters (Levon’s high school band) were major Little Richard fans, and we had to learn all his hits — “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” Rip It Up,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Ready Teddy,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Lucille,” “Slippin’ And Slidin'” — because we got so many requests for them.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, p. 40-41
Little Richard & The Upsetters – Keep A-Knockin’
Recorded January 16, 1957
Little Richard – vocals, piano
Clifford Burks, Wilbert Smith, and Grady Gaines – tenor sax
Samuel Parker Jr – baritone sax
Nathaniel Douglas – guitar
Olsie Robinson – bass
Charles Connor – drums
“Keep A-Knockin'” dates back to the 1920s, and over the years it’s been recorded by probably two hundred different artists, including Louis Jordan in 1939. However, the Little Richard version is obviously definitive because WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! Seriously, how is anyone gonna top Richard Penniman?!?! Unpossible.
However, it’s appropriate that in a post about the roots of Levon Helm, the secret weapon of “Keep A-Knockin'” is drummer Charles Connor. Born and raised in New Orleans, Connor created the “Choo Choo Train” style of rock ‘n’ roll drumming, with its emphasis on the eighth notes (“straight eighths”). Of course, now that’s taken for granted, but in 1957, this was original. According to legend, Little Richard took Connor to a train station in his hometown of Macon, Georgia, and asked him to come up with a drum style that mirrored the sound of a train. When Connor said, “It sounds like eighth notes,” Little Richard replied, “Well, if that’s eighth notes, that’s what I want you to play behind me on my fast tunes.” By the way, if the “Knockin'” intro sounds familiar, you white boys might know it from John Bonham‘s note-for-note intro to “Rock And Roll” from Led Zeppelin IV.
One night (1957) I’m in there listening to Conway Twitty and the Rock Housers, who were the best band around. Oh boy, were they good. Conway was from Friars Point, Mississippi, but moved to Helena when he was about 10 so his daddy could pilot Charlie Halbert’s ferryboat. His first band was the Phillips County ramblers, a country-style group, but that changed when Elvis’ “Mystery Train” inspired young Mr. Jenkins to being writing rockabilly songs. He went up to Memphis and worked with some of the Sun musicians, like Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee, and often came through our area with a series of good bands.
So, I’m in the Delta Supper Club, and Conway’s doing “Jenny Jenny,” and the place is just going nuts. He had all the rockabilly moves — the stutter, the twitches, the strut — and the band, led by Jimmy Ray Paulman on guitar, provided a raw rockabilly jolt. The girls loved Conway’s heavy-lidded good looks and long hair that reminded ’em of Elvis. The dancers are jitterbugging and working up a sweat, and I take a swig of my beer and work up the courage to ask to sit in for a song, since Conway was known for giving the young ones a shot.
“Sure, son,” he said between sets, after I’d reminded him of the time my sister and I opened for him on the porch of our little store in Midway. “Last song of the next set. Just come up and do whatever you want.” So, I got up and probably did one of Sonny Boy Williamson’s things, and that might have been my debut as a singer in front of a band. I can’t tell you what a feeling it gave me to be up on that stage. I was in high cotton! After the show, I said, “Mr. Jenkins, thanks so much for the experience. Do you think I could come by and try another one some time?”
“Sure thing,” he said, “but we’re headed up to Canada tonight, and it’ll be a little while before we’re back.”
“Ontario. They love rockabilly up there. Got a whole circuit; good bread to be made. You oughta come up and see for yourself.”
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, p. 44
Conway Twitty – You Can’t Judge A Book
Castaway Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio
OK, so I’m cheating a little by including a live Conway Twitty track from 1963. But, his presence here is essential. Of all the musician’s associated with Levon and The Band (or The Hawks), Twitty is easily the most overlooked. I think part of it is because Twitty’s permadour and smooth country hits seem cornball next to the mythic Band narrative. But, the man born Harold Jenkins was crucial to a young Levon Helm. He was 7 years Levon’s senior and was a living, breathing example of a Phillips County boy “making it.”
As with the live Elvis, I apologize for the shitty sound. However, it’s important to hear Conway Twitty, the rock ‘n’ roll bandleader. You probably know what “Hello Darlin'” (YouTube) sounds like, but have you heard Conway taking on Bo Diddley??? Doubtful. I haven’t a clue who’s in his band, but they smoke! Great basslines, solid horns, and badass guitar solos from 1:24-1:46 and especially from 2:55-3:17.
One night that fall (1957), I was in a bottle club in Forrest City, Arkansas with a half-pint of Ancient Age bourbon in my back pocket. Guitarist Jimmy Ray Paulman’s brother George was playing bass with a bunch of ol’ boys from West Memphis. I don’t remember how it happened — I think the drummer was either drunk or didn’t show up — and I volunteered to play the drums. It didn’t matter that I was a guitar player. I hit that Bo Diddley beat and watched it just jungle up that dance. We had a lot of fun that night and I thought that maybe I ought to start playing drums.
Meanwhile, Conway Twitty was about to lose Jimmy Ray Paulman to a young rocker from Fayetteville in northwest Arkansas: Ronnie Hawkins.
–Levon Helm, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, p. 45
Of course, Helm’s career really begins once he hits the road with Hawkins. But, that’s the next chapter. Before we get to Canada, we must pay our respects to rural Arkansas. On his 72nd birthday, let’s raise a toast to the roots of Levon Helm.