When Levon Helm and The Band performed at the Mississippi River Festival at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville in 1969, it put the fledgling summer musical gathering on the map because an old friend walked on stage for an unannounced cameo appearance.
Crouched in front of the stage, shooting pictures for a newspaper, I saw the figure in a big, round-brimmed hat emerge from the wings and muttered: “Son of a bitch! That’s Bob Dylan.”
And it was, Dylan decided to surprise the group of musicians who backed him up for the legendary “Music from Big Pink” album.
Backstage afterward, Helm lit a cigarette and laughed.
“This business sure is full of surprises,” he said.
Helm, more than anyone else, appeared surprised of the success of The Band, a group formed by he and Robbie Robertson from musicians who played for Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins. Hawkins, a tough taskmaster, expected long hours and hard work from his musicians but didn’t believe in paying.
But Robertson and Helm wanted their own band and and sat in a bar one night and decided to form one.
“I asked Robbie, ‘what do you want to call this new group of ours?’ He laughed and said, ‘why don’t we call it The Band?” I thought for a second and said ‘catchy name. I like it.” That’s how we became The Band.”
“Hell, everybody always just called us ‘the band’ anyway,” Robertson added.
Arkansas born Helm became the only non-Canadian in the band and the lead singer on many of the group;s big hits. When the band decided to end life on the road after more than 20 years on the road, their last performance was memorialized by director Martin Scorsese in “The Last Waltz” in 1976.
The breakup proved fatal for some. Rick Danko died from drug-related heart failure in 1990. Richard Manual killed himself in 1986. Helm was diagnosed and treated for throat cancer bet appeared for recover and formed his own band which featured his daughter and which appeared at FloydFest two years ago.
But the cancer returned and he went back into the hospital. Two days ago, they took him off life support. He died today.
(The video above is from Helm’s appearance at FloydFest in 2010)