Remembering Levon Helm: Watch Levon’s 1983 Appearance On ‘Late Night With David Letterman’

See the famed musician's no-show and eventual visit to 'Letterman' in 1983.

By Nate Todd Apr 19, 2022 2:10 pm PDT

Levon Helm sadly died on this date in 2012. The legendary singer and multi-instrumentalist co-founded The Band in 1967 and his country-tinged vocals and unique style of drumming were at the forefront of the massively influential group.

While the classic lineup of The Band — Helm, guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson — broke up in the late 1970s, Helm continued on. Levon put out his first album without The Band in 1977, Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars. The record truly lived up to its name featuring such artists as Paul Butterfield and Booker T. Jones among others as well as Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson. The impressive array of musicians would foreshadow Helm’s magnetism in drawing in stellar musicians to perform with him, later evidenced in his beloved Midnight Ramble jams at “The Barn” on Helm’s farm near Woodstock, New York.

In 1983 Levon would perform with another renowned group, the Paul Shaffer-led the Late Night with David Letterman house band. But as with more than a few stories involving members of The Band, the journey to perform on Letterman wasn’t without a tinge of drama. Levon was supposed to appear for a Letterman taping on January 5, 1983 with the show set to air the next day. Helm, however, did not show up. Dave made lemonade by bringing out the show’s talent coordinator, segment producer and writer, Gerard Mulligan, to discuss what Levon may have spoken about. Helm’s manager was also backstage and Dave did a clever bit on that as well.

But a week later, Levon made it to New York and apologized for missing the show due to his pickup truck catching on fire. Helm emerged from backstage with a mandolin and present for Dave (a jar of BBQ sauce from Levon’s native Arkansas) and graciously chatted with Letterman and performed “Rag Mama Rag” with Shaffer and company. He then sat in with the band for the rest of the show, playing “Caldonia,” “Hand Jive” and “Just Goes to Show You (The World is Mad)” during the commercial breaks. The interview, which is hilarious at points, and staying on to perform with the band for the whole show really gives a glimpse into the genuine, stand-up guy Levon was.

To remember Levon Helm, watch his appearance (and disappearance) on Late Night with David Letterman below:

[Originally Published: April 19, 2021]

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