Saturday, May 26, 2012

Blues So Bad, Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars (1977)

I try to drown 'em in drink
But what do you think
The blues can swim
They don't sink

I've been away from the blog for too long, working on "other projects," as we say, and I'm itching to get back to it. While I was AWOL, any number of music greats passed on, and two of them - Levon Helm and Duck Dunn - just happen to be featured in Blues So Bad, from an album, Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars, that escaped my notice at the time.

Tomorrow would have been Helm's 72nd birthday, so this is highly appropriate, but the way I found the album had nothing to do with him (I wrote about him in a previous post). I was looking for information on Henry Glover, a pioneering music executive whose name I ran across when I wrote about Steve Cropper's Dedicated some months back. On that tribute album to the 5 Royales was a touching cover sung by the glorious Dan Penn, Someone Made You For Me, which had been written by Glover, just one of 20 pages of songs that his entry on AllMusic shows he wrote or co-wrote over his long career. Glover, also the first black record executive in America dating back to the 1940s, was, with Syd Nathan, the brain trust behind Cincinnati's King Records, and helped make that company a trailblazer in not profiling white and black music, merging its "race music" label, Queen, into King in 1947. 

The way this intersects with Levon Helm? Glover's relationship with Helm dates back to the late 1950s, when Helm was hanging in Canada with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson as Ronnie Hawkins' backup band. Glover, who as a consummate A&R man knew talent when he saw it and had become friendly with Helm, convinced the Hawks, as they were known, to go out on their own (initially recording them as the Canadian Squires), then as Bob Dylan's backup band and ultimately, The Band.

Years later, after The Band dissolved, Helm asked Glover to shepherd his first solo project into existence, which was this RCO All-Stars album. (They co-wrote Blues So Bad.) Always a great collaborator, Helm wanted to invite some of his favorite musicians along for the maiden voyage. I gather some critics and fans were put out by the fact that the music was too rootsy and didn't sound like The Band. Of course it didn't. That's Paul Butterfield blowing the harmonica and Duck Dunn playing the bottom of the groove as only he could on bass, for starters. Think outside the box, people!

I was sitting in front of my computer on May 13 when Steve Cropper's Facebook status update came over the transom: “Today I lost my best friend, the world has lost the best guy and bass player to ever live,” Cropper wrote of Dunn's death after they played together in Tokyo.

Losing great musical talents at any time of their life is rough on those of us who revered them and whose spirits soared because of them. Whether they were known personally or simply as bearers of the essential soundtrack of our lives matters not. Both Levon Helm and Duck Dunn reveled in creating and sharing music until the end; they were lucky. As the pace of our musicians shuffling off this mortal coil picks up, as it inevitably will, I am grateful for the opportunities I have to get to know them better, enriching my life in ways I could never have anticipated. 


Anonymous said...

I've been checking regularly for a few months, Wendy, and I'm SO glad you're back . . . and with a truly wonderful post for us. Marie

Drummer83 said...

Wonderfully written, as usual, Wendy. Very nice.
Thank you,