The next issue of Elmore Magazine will feature a look back at the life and work of Levon Helm, as told by the people who worked with him over the years and knew him best. In this exclusive preview, we talked with John Simon, who produced The Band’s first two albums, about working with Helm as well as his dispute with Robbie Robertson
Helm’s animosity toward Robbie Robertson, the guitarist, primary songwriter and, ultimately de facto leader of the Band, remains legendary for its bitterness. Helm believed Robertson had shafted him (and the rest of the Band) on the publishing and broke up the Band. The fact remains that Robertson (and Dylan and Manuel) wrote most of the Big Pink songs in Helm’s absence, and only co-writers, not arrangers get royalties.
Which is not to say Robertson played 100% fair.
By 1976, John Simon, who accepted one sixth of the Big Pink record deal, hadn’t seen a check in a long time, so when Robertson asked Simon to produce The Last Waltz, Simon agreed, but mentioned the missing royalties. Robertson sent him a check for $64,000, and asked Simon to forego future royalties on those first two albums, but to take royalties on The Last Waltz, which Robertson told him would sell better. “We lived next door to each other, I was the godfather of his first-born, we shared a driveway. What can I tell ya?” Simon said. “Everybody was smoking too much dope at that time, including me, and I trusted him.” He’s since earned “not a penny“’ from those first two albums, and because Warners charged the cost of the film against the album, he gets “a check for maybe $600 a year from The Last Waltz; in common parlance, [Robertson] totally fucked me.” Helm claimed that he, Manuel, Danko and Hudson never received money for the Waltz videos, DVDs or soundtracks; John Taplin, who produced the film with Robertson, claimed that nobody who worked on The Last Waltz film-including himself, Robertson, and director Martin Scorcese-has made any money from the film.
Check back on ElmoreMagazine.com for more exclusive content, and look for the March/April issue of Elmore coming to stores soon!