Musical legend, actor, author, multiple Grammy-winner and Phillips County native Levon Helm passed away today. The Times caught up with some of his friends and bandmates, including Earl Cate of the Cate Brothers, and rockabilly legends Ronnie Hawkins and Sonny Burgess and Bobby Crafford of Sonny Burgess & The Legendary Pacers. All of these folks had known Levon for decades and kindly offered their memories of someone they described as a one-of-a-kind musician and a man who never forgot his friends and never forgot where he came from.
Ronnie Hawkins —
On Levon’s musical legacy: “Baby, he meant a lot to the music business. He was gifted young boy, I’ll tell you that. He was the pride of Marvell, Ark.”
When he and Levon met: “Oh man, we laughed all night long. He wasn’t but about just turning 17. I went down to Memphis to take this job I was offered and by the time I got there, the band had broken up over who was going to be the leader or something. The guitar player who’d called me, Jimmy Ray Paulmon, he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen then or since then, at rockabilly.
“So when the band broke up, he said, ‘Well, we can go back to Helena’ — where he lived. He had a cousin that played piano and had been playing for two or three years and he knew some of the other musicians to get and he had played with Levon Helm at a few places where Levon had sat in. They thought it was great, and he didn’t even own a set of drums at that time. That’s how we started, and we just laughed our way right on through to the promised land, to Canada. And it was great. They became the best.”
More on Levon’s legacy: I think he’s going to have a big one all the way forever, because all those great musicians, for some reason, they really liked Levon and a lot of them really liked Ricky Danko. And they hung around them, which means they liked them. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, everybody liked Levon. He had a following because he was Levon. He’s special.”
Earl Cate —
On Levon’s musical chops: “He was a one-of-a-kind person and just an unbelievable musician. His feel at the drums was something. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. The closest thing I’ve experienced is his nephew Terry [Cagle] who plays with us.”
How Levon helped The Cate Brothers get started: “He’s responsible for us going as far as we did, because he’s the one who sent a demo tape, gave it to Elliot Roberts in California who took it over to Elektra/Asylum Records and they ended up signing us, so it’s really Levon’s doing. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have went where we did with the Cate brothers.
Staying in touch over the years: “Through the years, since his parents lived in Springdale, when he was home he always came to see us and sat it and played with us or whatever. I actually met Levon in, I think it was ’62 when he was playing with Ronnie Hawkins. But through the years we played a lot of music together.”
Levon’s favorite breakfast: “He hated to fly, one of the only places he’d fly was Japan. He loved sushi. I can still see it now. I go to his room when it’s time to check out and he’s sitting in bed with this Japanese robe on and he’s having sushi for breakfast. He loved it over there and they loved him. He had a great personality, obviously. He never met a stranger.”
The Midnight Rambles: “He always wanted to have the ramble at the barn. He talked about it back in the ’80s, when we were playing with him and he said, “We need to start a ramble here on Saturday night.” It never did happen back then, but it finally did. He got his wish.”
Sonny Burgess and Bobby Crafford —
Burgess, on Levon’s stage presence: “At that time, the Silver Moon [in Newport] had a two-tier bandstand for orchestras and stuff like that. I looked up there and there’s Hawkins in the middle of the stage and on his right was Levon on the drums. Most drummers usually sat in the background, but Levon done moved out in front.”
Crafford, on meeting Levon: “I guess it might have been in Canada. He was playing with Ronnie and we were up there on tour too. We took a Sunday and we went to see them.”
Crafford, on meeting Levon’s Canadian girlfriends: “We played up there and each week, you had to go the IRS office up there and actually pay your taxes before they’d let the clubs release your checks. I don’t know if it’s that way now or not, it was then. We were playing and I went to the IRS on Friday to pay it, and they’d release your check on Saturday, and I was talking to the girl and she noticed my address said Arkansas and she says, ‘Do you know Levon?’ And I said, ‘I sure do.’ And she said, ‘I used to be Levon’s girlfriend.’ Well I don’t know how many girls I heard tell that.”
Crafford, on getting the invite to a Midnight Ramble: “He called me one time and said, ‘Ya’ll just get your sleeping bags and come sleep here in my studio, just come on up here.’ I said, ‘Man we’re too old for that, we can’t do that.’ But that’s the kind of person he was. He was always happy every time I saw him. He was the life of the party. And I know he went through it bad with this cancer.”
Burgess, on Levon’s wit: “Levon was a sharp cookie. He had to be, look at the good living and the fun he had for many, many years. He was 16 I think when Hawkins said he got him off that tractor up in Marvell.”