Goodbye Levon: Gibson.com’s Arlen Roth Remembers a Musical Great
Having known and played and recorded with Levon Helm a long time, especially through his illness, the news of his passing, although not unexpected, is still really too much to bear.
To play with him was what it was like to play with a truly world-class musician, and once in his presence, you simply never forgot that magic that he commanded. He took the recording sessions so seriously, and many times was the last one who wasn’t satisfied with a track when the rest of us were ready to move on to others. He and I cut 11 tracks in merely 2 days, and his drumming was something you could set your watch to! No click tracks for him….every beat existed in its own space and time, and when he did that little “bob” with his head each time he hit that snare drum, you knew he was right on the money!
The album we made is called Toolin’ Around Woodstock, but it was more like touring around the Western world of music! We touched all bases, and the songs were all chosen by both he and I, and he just took the whole process so seriously that I felt doubly honored by his incredible presence. It made me think of what those Bandsessions must’ve been like, since he was such a perfectionist who was also surrounded by others! Levon was a gracious and open-hearted man who always welcomed us to his studio as if it were his home, and after all, it was! So many musicians can op an “attitude” in situations like these, but Lee (as close friends called him) was just so giving and open as to be disarming! He really made you instantly fall in love with him, and with his incredible legacy of music to back it up, you always knew you were in the presence of real American music royalty.
One day, as I was recording tracks with him and doing some guitar overdubs, I had gone out of the room for a minute. When I came back, I noticed that he was singing to our track for “Crying Time,” the classic Ray Charles song. Sure enough, and before you knew it, he was taking a crack at singing this song as well as “Sweet Little 16” on MY album! He did an incredible job, and I am forever grateful that he honored me by doing two vocals on my record, and it was only afterwards that I found out that these were the first ever vocals he recorded since his throat cancer operation. It was after doing these sessions that he decided in was in “good enough voice” to do his monumental Dirt Farmer record the same year as mine.
The very first time I recorded with Levon was on Kate Taylor’s album Beautiful Road, in a session in which he played mandolin while I played acoustic guitar. What a thrill THAT was, as we had such a great time, and I had him in hysterics the whole time with my crazy storytelling! He even said after the session, “Arlen, we gotta keep on hangin’ out together if for nothin’ else but those stories!” That made me feel so good to make him so happy, and at that point I had no idea that some 14 years later I’d be doing one of my own albums with him.
I am so thankful for my time with this great man, but more so, we should all be thankful for the amazing and incredible legacy of this man’s musical and personal soul that has been left to us for all eternity! Thank you Levon for all you did… your music will live on for all eternity!