Levon Helm, “Blues So Bad” from Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars (1977): Across the Great Divide

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Left to his own devices after the dissolution of the Band, Levon Helm returned to the things that had been his strengths, been his succor, and been his joy. That meant the earthy blues of his Delta youth, performed with the eternal warmth of straw and seed, and it meant collaborating on a broad scale.

“With the All-Stars,” Helm once confided, “I felt strength in numbers. It’s just a hell of a lot more fun to cut up anything with your friends, no matter how good or bad you do it by yourself.” In fact, he added, “the better it is by yourself, the more lonesome it is.”

It seemed like a deeply lonesome time, indeed. That’s something “Blues So Bad,” the only Helm original on 1977’s Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars, speaks to directly. It is, on its surface, a wry groover — spacious and yet artfully insistent, like the muddy rivulets of Mississippi backwash. But there’s a darker undertow. Levon Helm tries to drown his blues there, only to find they just won’t sink. He tries to light them aflame, too — but they won’t burn, either. There’s only smoke.

That was the state of things with his old group, which was in limbo prior to receiving a send off Helm never wanted with the release of 1978’s The Last Waltz. As such, Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars felt like a placekeeper, an opportunity for Helm to gather some strikingly talented musical confederates for a good-natured picking session. The typically easy-going results, recorded at Shangri-La and at Helm’s original pre-fire Woodstock-based RCO Studio, certainly felt that way. Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars was as star packed as it was approachable.

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Booker T. Jones, who played keyboards, once noted that the RCO All-Stars represented “a consortium of musical styles and backgrounds drawn from each of the players, who were raised up and down the Mississippi River.” That included — in addition to Helm, a Phillips County, Ark. native — Jones’ fellow Memphis alumni like Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, as well as Winnsboro, La., native Fred Carter and New Orleans product Dr. John.

Paul Butterfield, Tom Malone, Lou Marini, Alan Rubin and Henry Glover (who, like Carter, shared a connection with Helm back to Ronnie Hawkins’ bands) rounded out the lineup. Butterfield and Dr. John had also taken part in The Last Waltz. Glover, a former A&R man who originally convinced the Hawks to go out on their own — initially as the Canadian Squires — not only provided a backstop for Helm’s initial solo venture, he co-wrote “Blues So Bad” with his old friend. But his fingers are all over the project. Henry Glover is credited as band master on Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars.

These connections seemed to point to something more stable. Unfortunately, Helm was on the cusp of losing both the Band and this newer amalgam of busy friends. “We were able to match everyone’s schedules there for a while,” Helm would later say. “The tour went quite well, but in the end there were too many different schedules and plans to keep it together.”

Originally assembled (ironically enough) for a March 1977 appearance on Saturday Night Live, the RCO All-Stars boasted several members — including Cropper, Dunn, Rubin and Malone — who were later poached away from Helm, forming the nucleus for the far-more-famous Blues Brothers Band. Jones and Dunn co-produced the subsequent Levon Helm, released in 1978, but the rest of this new group scattered, too.

Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars only reached No. 142 on the charts, and Helm took an acclaimed detour into acting for a time. Later, he’d reunite with everyone but Robbie Robertson and continue as the Band, then release a trio of Grammy-winning solo albums late in his cancer-stricken life. Sadly, Dunn died on May 13, 2012, just weeks after Helm.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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