May 26th

Levon Helm was born May 26, 1940. It’s his voice you know from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and “The Weight.” He died in 2012.

The Band, more than any other group, put rock and roll back in touch with its roots. With their ageless songs and solid grasp of musical idioms, the Band reached across the decades, making connections for a generation that was, as an era of violent cultural schisms wound down, in desperate search of them. They projected a sense of community in the turbulent late Sixties and early Seventies – a time when the fabric of community in the United States was fraying. Guitarist Robbie Robertson drew from history in his evocative, cinematic story-songs, and the vocal triumvirate of bassist Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm and keyboardist Richard Manuel joined in rustic harmony and traded lines in rich, conversational exchanges. Multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson provided musical coloration in period styles that evoked everything from rural carnivals of the early 20th century to rock and roll revues of the Fifties.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Norma Deloris Egstrom was born on May 26th in 1920. We know her as Peggy Lee. Miss Lee began with the Benny Goodman band in 1941, then recorded on her own beginning later in the 1940s. Her signature song is Little Willie John’s “Fever,” recorded by Lee in 1958. She also wrote a number of songs, including “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” for Lady and the Tramp. Lee received a supporting actress Oscar nomination for her performance in Pete Kelly’s Blues. She died in 2002.

Harold J. Smith was born in Branford, Ontario, on this date in 1912. He was a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation (Canadian Mohawk). Harry Smith boxed Golden Gloves and played lacrosse. Eventually he found his way to movies and then television where, as Jay Silverheels, he played Tonto in The Lone Ranger TV series, 1949-1957. He died in 1980.

Ben Alexander was born on this date in 1911. A veteran actor who began at age 5, Alexander is best known for playing Detective Frank Smith on the first TV run of Dragnet in the 1950s. (Harry Morgan had the Jack Webb’s sidekick role in the second run.) Alexander has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Al Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire, on May 26, 1886. The biggest star on Broadway and vaudeville even before the movie The Jazz Singer in 1927, by the 1930s he was America’s most famous and highest paid entertainer. It can be said, that as Elvis Presley married country and blues, Al Jolson wedded Jewish performing style with jazz, blues and ragtime, and so made “race music” acceptable to the wider audience.

Mamie Robinson Smith was born on May 26th in 1883. She was a vaudeville performer and the first African American singer to make vocal blues recordings. Smith’s “Crazy Blues” — a Grammy Hall of Fame record and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Song That Shaped Rock and Roll — was recorded in 1920. It sold over a million copies in its first year. She was billed “Queen of the Blues” — but of course, Bessie Smith came right behind and Bessie was “Empress of the Blues.”