…in tradition with the family plan

It’s easy to imagine that Levon Helm, drummer and frequent lead vocalist for ‘The Band’ has served as a huge inspiration to many a musician.  Take for example Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen’s long-standing drummer who displayed his percussion and vocal versatility with “The Weight” (made famous by Helm) when auditioning for the E Street Band.

Arkansas born and bred, Helm, who died recently at the age of 71, was also the inspiration for today’s selection, composed by one Reginald Kenneth Dwight, just past his days with Bluesology, the late ‘60s supporting band for blues singer, Long John Baldry.

As the story goes, Dwight (based in Middlesex, England) was an exceptional composer who needed help with the words if he was going to find any success with his own melodies. When a recording studio manager handed him a stack of lyrics that had been submitted through the mail by an unknown writer, he quickly turned each of them into a creditable song. And so began a partnership that still continues.

The next step was for Dwight to adopt a new stage name, which he did by taking Baldry’s given name as a surname and combining it with ex-band mate, Elton Dean’s given name as…well, a given name, to form a pleasing new moniker. And in 1969, with a new pile of songs written with his new lyricist, Bernie Taupin, Elton John recorded his debut album, Empty Sky.

‘The Band’ was known to be a huge favorite of both men and you can see the group’s influences in Elton John’s third studio album, Tumbleweed Connection in 1970.  Not many musical acts strike the kinds of heights Elton and Bernie hit that year, with three consecutive gold records in three consecutive months (Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection and the soundtrack album, Friends), followed by the release of a live album (17-11-70) the month after that.

With a title track that had been slated for release on Tumbleweed Connection, the fourth studio album, Madman Across the Water served as a natural “next step” when it was recorded a leisurely six months later and (by far) the album’s best track had a natural tie-in to Levon Helm.  That’s because the song was named after him, although “Levon” (the song’s main character) is entirely fictional, as is the main character’s son (named “Jesus”) and his father, “Alvin Tosig.”

“Levon” peaked at Number 24 on the Billboard charts in early 1971 and Madman Across the Water became Elton John’s lowest charting album in the UK since his debut album, reaching a “lowly” Number 41 on the UK Charts.  It did hit Number 8 on the Billboard Charts in the U.S. however, thereby becoming Elton John’s fourth gold record in the space of a year.

Meanwhile, Levon lives on…on record and in person, as Elton John and his civil partner, David Furnish had a son, who (‘though hardly a “pauper to a pawn”) was born on Christmas Day 2010; his name, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.  To the rest of us, quite simply, he shall be Levon.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Tuesday 8 May

Levon

Levon wears his war wound like a crown

He calls his child Jesus

‘Cause he likes the name

And he sends him to the finest school in town

 Levon, Levon likes his money

He makes a lot they say

Spends his days counting

In a garage by the motorway

He was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas day

When the New York Times said, “God is dead

And the war’s begun, Alvin Tostig has a son today”

 And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

And he shall be Levon

In tradition with the family plan

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

He shall be Levon

 Levon sells cartoon balloons in town

His family business thrives

Jesus blows up balloons all day

Sits on the porch swing watching them fly

 And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus

Leaving Levon far behind

Take a balloon and go sailing

While Levon, Levon slowly dies

He was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas day

When the New York Times said, “God is dead

And the war’s begun, Alvin Tostig has a son today”

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

And he shall be Levon

In tradition with the family plan

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

He shall be Levon

And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

And he shall be Levon

In tradition with the family plan

 And he shall be Levon

And he shall be a good man

He shall be Levon

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