In a recent poll on this very website, The Band’s eponymous 1969 album was voted the top Americana album of all time – a deserved honour for a band who epitomises the genre with a body of work that is unrivalled. Then in 1976 after a few years of acrimony, arguments about songwriting credits, excessive drug use and just plain band fatigue, they split up but not before having given the world what is probably the finest live album ever released, ‘The Last Waltz’ – a fantastic swansong for an amazing band.
Fans of the band such as me waited with bated breath to see what the solo members of the band would come up with. They had three of the most distinctive singers any band ever had in Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel as well as a much-heralded songwriter and guitarist in Robbie Robertson who did sing but his voice didn’t compare with the band’s unique line-up of three lead singers.
Personally, I was really looking forward to Helm’s offering as his voice had always struck a chord with me and that’s not to forget his superb drumming and mandolin playing. In a band made up of Canadians, this Arkansas old boy’s distinctive voice shone like a beacon in a band of shining lights.
I remember buying his debut solo album ‘Levon Helm & The RCO All Stars’ in One Stop Records in South Molton Street in London’s Mayfair. They specialised in American imports which in those days were often in the shops before the UK release. Released on the ABC label it had a die-cut cover which meant that the painting of Helm’s snow-covered house and studio was printed on the inner sleeve so when you pulled it out to get to the record, the painting came with it. This wasn’t the first time this had been done but it showed that ABC were fully behind the release as to produce this kind of cover, was a lot more expensive than the normal record sleeve.
Then the rush home to take the record out of the inner sleeve and put it on my turntable. On first hearing it wasn’t what I expected – more R&B than the kind of music The Band had played although there were echoes of tracks like ‘Life Is A Carnival’ rather than something like ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ and it took a few listening’s before I realised, I loved the album and have done ever since.
Helm got together some of his favourite musicians such as three quarters of Booker T & The MG’s – Booker T Jones on keyboards, Steve Cropper on guitar and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass. Drummer Al Jackson had been shot dead in 1975 although he wouldn’t have been needed as drumming duties were of course carried out by Helm himself. Also prominent on the ten tracks was Mac Rebennack (aka Dr John) on piano and Paul Butterfield on harmonica. Complimenting them were some of the best horn players around and three superb backing singers, Emmaretta Marks, Jeannette Baker and John Flamingo. This was the line-up on nine of the ten tracks, and they were augmented on the other one by Robbie Roberson and Garth Hudson from The Band proving there were no hard feelings between the ex bandmates.
Seven of the ten tracks are contemporary covers including ‘Washer Woman’ written by Rebennack, ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ from Earl King and ‘The Mood I Was In’ by Fred Carter Jnr. There’s also a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Havana Moon’ which is probably the weakest track on the album with Helm singing in a cod-Jamaican accent which might be why he’s so far back in the mix! Helm also has three co-writes: ‘Blues So Bad’ with Henry Glover (who’s credited on the album as “Band Master”) and two traditional songs ‘Milk Cow Boogie’ (with Donald Dunn) and ‘That’s My Home’ (with Rebennack).
The album was recorded at Helm’s RCO studios in his home in Woodstock NY and Shangri-La studios in Malibu CA with the ten tracks being shared evenly between the two studios; Helm and the All Stars are listed as producers. The overall sound of the album is basically R&B/Funk with a little touch of New Orleans swamp rock thrown in for good measure. It’s a feel-good record that brings a smile to the face of the listener and they can’t help but tap their toes and stomp their feet to the infectious sound. There’s some fabulous horn playing, Cropper’s unique guitar style is unmistakeable and a joy as is Butterfield’s Chicago blues harp playing and there are even strings on ‘That’s My Home’ the closing track – everyone seems to be having a really good time.
Now you may be thinking but this article comes as part of the “Classic Americana Albums” series and if I’ve described the overall feel of the album properly, it sounds more like an R&B album than Americana and under different circumstances that would be the case. If the singer on this album had been someone like Al Green or Dr John himself, it would definitely be filed under R&B or funk. But the singer is the amazing Levon Helm whose Arkansas twang takes the album right into Americana territory and following in the footsteps of other albums in this series such as Jackson Browne’s ‘Late For The Sky’, Springsteen’s ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ and Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Don’t Cry Now’, ‘Levon Helm & The RCO All Stars’ thoroughly deserves the accolade of being called a “Classic Americana Album”.