Friday, April 20, 2012
Remembering Levon Helm
It was a crisp fall day in late 2008 when we gathered at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock to partake of his generosity in agreeing to sit in on two tracks for my CD The Deep End. Andy York of John Mellencamp's band, my longtime friend and co-producer was there with Paul Ossola (at that time the bassman in Levon's band, but also a compadre of many years going back to The Scratch Band, Paul's and my band with GE Smith. Paul was the catalyst for the session, having pitched the idea to Levon, for which I am eternally grateful). Also with us were Jeff Kazee (keys in the NYC Hit Squad and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, and a fabulously soulful vocalist himself) and the great Marshall Crenshaw on second guitar and baritone guitar. Levon had graciously lent not only studio space but himself as drummer on Marshall's and my duet, "What's The Matter With You Baby," a Motown chestnut originally recorded by Marvin Gaye & Mary Wells (Marshall is a Detroit boy, born and raised, so I thought the song a good choice!).
The studio in Woodstock is clean, beautiful space, almost devoid of the usual baffles and glass. Even the control room is just a balcony, completely open to the rest of the studio, which sits below it. Upon entering the room, Levon had greeted me so warmly, taking my hand in both of his and saying his name, "Leh-VOHN", with that Arkansas lilt. I was captivated and charmed immediately by this lovely man, known as "Lee" to his friends.
The session moved quickly, and we soon had what we thought was a pretty good take. Lee seemed frail; he'd recently resumed playing after his first bout with the cancer, and I didn't want to overtax him. We gathered in the control room, listened, and all eyes turned to Lee. "You're singing your ass off on every take," he said, fixing me in his sights with a chuckle, "but personally, I don't think I did myself any favors with what I just played. Would you mind if we took it again?"
Of course we were all for it, and re-entered the studio. Levon sat down at the drums and indicated a new intro he wanted to add, giving us just a taste of a new groove he'd envisioned while we listened back to that previous take. The genius of the man (and the musician) became apparent then, as he sure-footedly turned the groove around from what we'd had, and led us through a one-time romp that swung so hard with a snaky little backbeat, we just knew it had to be the one. And it was.
I'd also brought in a lilting little countrified thing called "Girl Growing Up" that had been inspired by my then-13-year-old niece. The plan was to have Lee play mandolin, but when he heard the song, he asked, "Do I hear a minor chord in there?" We confirmed that, yes, the minor-6 chord was heard throughout (think Ben E King's "Stand By Me" if you don't know what this means; that song's iconic bass line feeds off the minor-6 alternating with the main chord). "Then you'd better get someone who can really play," he said with a twinkle. "You don't want me! I'll play tambourine!" There was laughter all around, Levon picked up the tambourine, and in the end, there's no mandolin on the track at all, just a brilliant baritone guitar line played by Marshall Crenshaw.
Afterward, Levon and I walked down to the lake with a few of his dogs and talked about fishing for catfish. Another wonderful, memorable moment.
My thanks also to James Smith, the assistant engineer who photographed us that day, and to chief engineer Justin Guip, who made it all sound easy and great. I cannot imagine the level of sadness that everyone at Levon Helm Studios (the home of his Midnight Ramble) must today be experiencing. Truly, truly, truly we have lost one of the greats.