If you were lucky enough to see Levon Helm & the Barn Burners on tour in this region a few years ago, you probably saw Jimmy Markham open for the band, which he did on several occasions. Helm’s affection for Markham is evident by the inscription he wrote in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire—“Jimmy: I love you bro. Come and see me.”
Although they would see each other occasionally at various gigs, it was 15 years later before Markham went to visit his old friend on his home turf. Off he headed to Woodstock, New York with three Tulsa buddies and tickets for the November 15, 2008 Midnight Ramble, Helm’s legendary bi-monthly concerts played in his barn turned studio. “It was an absolute treat. Garth (Hudson) showed up, Levon’s daughter Amy performed, and the Punch Brothers were there.” And the audience was captivated by several of Helm’s vocal classics from The Band: “Ophelia,” “The Shape I’m In” and “The Weight.”
Helm had overcome his initial bout of throat cancer but was still protecting his voice. “I really didn’t expect to talk much but Levon invited me back to his house after they played and we shot the bull ’til two or three in the morning and then met for lunch the next day,” says Markham. “He invited me several times over the years to come back and record but … I don’t know … the timing never worked out.” A wisp of melancholy overtakes Markham for a moment but his smile returns as he launches into his memories about the early days with the rock ’n’ roll legend.
Markham recalls meeting Arkansas native Levon Helm in the late 1950s, when Helm was on the road with rockabilly band Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks. “He was only 17 and already an incredible drummer.” The band would play in Tulsa at the Fondalite Club at 11th and Denver—part of a group of clubs known as “The Corner of Dreams”—where Markham also regularly played with his band Jimmy Markham and The Scamps.
“We were around the same age and I think we connected partly because of our Oklahoma-Arkansas roots,” recalls Markham. “We just identified with each other right off the bat.” The two would hang out together in Fayetteville when Helm wasn’t on the road.
The friends kept in touch even after The Hawks split, with Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson leaving Hawkins in 1963 to tour as Levon and The Hawks. Within a couple years, Helm was on the East Coast making musical history as part of the “electric” band backing Bob Dylan. But Helm was used to cheers and accolades, not the boos and jeers that accompanied Dylan’s new sound. And he wasn’t thrilled with being relegated to “back-up” band—one of the reasons The Hawks split from Hawkins. Four months into Dylan’s North American tour, Helm had enough and headed back home to Arkansas.
Most biographies of Helm fill in the gaps in his years with The Band—they weren’t officially The Band when backing Dylan, but when he’d play solo he was said to have left “the band” at home—by having him moving back to Arkansas or occasionally working on an offshore oil rig. In fact, Helm ultimately ended up in Los Angeles, where Jimmy Markham was living with Leon Russell.
In This Wheel’s On Fire, Helm recalls heading to California where he “hung out with saxophonist Bobby Keyes (sic) for a while. I knew Leon Russell out there, and Johnnie Cale, Roger Tillotson (sic), Jesse Ed Davis, and Jimmy Markham—all musicians from the Tulsa area.”
“Levon lived just about 10 minutes from Skyhill,” Markham says of Leon Russell’s infamous house and studio on Skyhill Drive where he lived on and off through the ’60s. Russell was at that time part of a historic group of session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, working with various producers including Phil Spector. The close proximity made it easy for the friends to get together. “Levon would come over, hang out, and we’d play together,” says Markham. Any recordings Helm and Markham made during that time were lost along with most of the tapes done at Skyhill during Leon Russell’s moves to Tulsa and then Nashville.
The two shared a passion for music, especially rhythm and blues, and scoured various record stores for new or obscure releases and regularly headed to the legendary Ash Grove on Melrose to catch top R&B acts. “We saw Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf,” says Markham. “What an experience.”
Then one day Helm invited Markham over to his place and to meet “a full blood Indian guitar player from Oklahoma City” who turned out to be Jesse Ed Davis. Helm had gotten his start sitting in with Arkansas- native country star Conway Twitty and knew Davis from his stint as the guitar player in Twitty’s band. Davis had recently left Twitty and moved to California. “Levon told me he didn’t talk much,” laughs Markham. “I was there for two or three hours and I don’t think he said two words.”
They started playing together, along with a tenor saxophonist from Texas named Bobby Keys. Keys eventually became famous performing with the Rolling Stones, and Davis would become another hotshot Okie session man, recording with the likes of Eric Clapton and John Lennon. He was in the band for George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” and his guitar solo punctuates Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.”
But in the mid-1960s, Helm, Markham, Davis, and Keys—four musicians with common, Midwestern roots—were content to play local clubs in the Los Angeles area. Before long, Markham had booked them a regular Sunday night gig at an LA club called Peacock Alley. “The place was a classic 1940s lounge,” explains Markham. “The old guy who ran it billed himself as George DeCarlo and his Whispering Trumpet.” DeCarlo looked like he’d stepped out of the ‘40s, complete with the pinstripe suit, bad toupee, and pencil mustache that he highlighted with mascara. “Levon called him ‘Old Spice.’” The thought of the whole scene still makes Markham laugh.
Every Sunday night, the group—Markham can’t remember what name they used—headlined DeCarlo’s blues and fried chicken night. “He’d buy a bucket and ceremoniously hand out one piece of chicken to each person there,” laughs Markham. With Helm on drums, Davis on guitar, Keys on sax, Markham’s harmonica, and various bass players sitting in, this lineup commanded a whopping $12.50 per player. But DeCarlo made them hand over union work dues each week “that probably never got turned in” so they came home with around $10 each. “Hard to believe how much that $10 helped get us through the week,” says Markham.
DeCarlo sat in a couple times with his “whispering trumpet” and other friends stopped by to sit in on occasion, including Leon Russell (playing guitar), J.J. Cale, and Rick Danko when he was in town “trying to talk Levon into coming back ” to his old band.
Helm, Markham, Davis, and Keys also played regularly in downtown LA at an all-black club on the edge of Watts. “This wasn’t the safest place for an all-white band to be in the ‘60s,” Markham remembers. And one night some guys in the crowd “didn’t like it we were there” and started a fight. Markham can’t remember who broke it up, “other patrons, the owner—I’m not sure.” But it was intense and they got out of there fast. “Levon was furious about getting run out and the whole way home, he just kept yelling he was going back with a pistol and ‘straighten things out.’ I kept saying, ‘No, you’re not’ but he wouldn’t let up. Finally he calmed down by the time we got home. He was such a level-headed guy, I only saw him lose his temper twice in all the years I knew him.”
One involved a haircut, with Markham in the role of barber. “I messed up and gouged about a quarter size chunk out of Levon’s scalp.” Markham remembers laughing about it, and “the more I laughed, the madder he got, which made me laugh even harder. Boy, he was pissed off at me.”
By then Bob Dylan and Helm’s previous bandmates had landed back in Woodstock after the European tour ended. Rick Danko had continuously prodded Helm to return to The Hawks and he was finally persuaded after a recording contract with Capitol Records was in negotiation. Helm moved back East, suggesting the group be called The Crackers. By the time the contract was inked though, they were officially known as The Band.
Regardless of the time and miles that divided that group from their vintage “fried chicken days” at Peacock Alley, they always remained friends and played together through the years. Now Bobby Keys and Markham—who recently performed together at the Grand Lake Music Festival—are the only two remaining.
Jesse Ed Davis died of a heroin overdose in 1988 and Helm died this April of throat cancer. “Levon was top notch, one of the best people I’ve ever known,” says Markham. “And he went out on top.”