100 Greatest Drummers of All Time

From rock thunder machines to punk powerhouses, we count down the kings and queens of slam

Load Previous
Levon Helm
100
RB/Redferns/Getty22/100

22. Levon Helm

In his 1984 book The Big Beat, Max Weinberg paid apt tribute to Levon Helm, the Band's legendary singing drummer: "The muffled cadence of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,' the tumble-down tom-toms of 'Up on Cripple Creek,' and the weary yet determined backbeat of 'The Weight' show Levon to be one of the rare breed of drummers that are able to set not only the beat but the scene of a song's story as well." Born in tiny Marvell, Arkansas, Helm spent the late Fifties and early Sixties playing dives all over North America as a member of Ronnie Hawkins' backing band. By 1965, Helm and his fellow Hawks were backing Bob Dylan on his first electric tour; by 1968, they had re-dubbed themselves the Band and begun cutting original songs that often revolved around Helm's inimitable deep-pocket groove and proudly drawling vocal style. Despite his bitterness toward Robbie Robertson's decision to end the group with 1976's "Last Waltz" performance in San Francisco, the Martin Scorsese film of that all-star Thanksgiving show stands as a monument to Helm's charisma and rhythmic authority. In the drummer's later years, as his health was declining along with his finances, he held concerts in a barn on his own property in Woodstock. Night after night, even when throat cancer treatments turned his voice into a soft rasp, he joyously played tunes old and new, keeping the spirit of the Band alive at these so-called Midnight Rambles. "He was my bosom buddy friend to the end," Dylan said of Helm after his death, "one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation."

Back to Top