Award-winning singer and musician Levon Helm, drummer and the only non-Canadian member of the legendary '70s rockers The Band, has died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He was 71.
Helm died peacefully Thursday afternoon, surrounded by family, friends and bandmates, according to a note on his official website.
His family revealed on Tuesday that Helm was in the final stages of a long-running battle with cancer.
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 and the illness reduced his voice to a whisper. But he still continued to sing on albums and play at rollicking concerts at his Woodstock, N.Y., home.
Helm's legacy celebrated on social media
Robbie Robertson, a former member of The Band who had been estranged from Helm, wrote that he went to see the musician when he heard of his illness.
In an online posting Wednesday, Robertson said he recalled "the incredible and beautiful times we had together."
"Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever," Robertson said.
The Band was hailed for a string of classic records, including their self-titled 1969 album, The Band. Helm was influential as a singer and a songwriter, contributing his southern-tinged voice to hits such as The Weight, W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show, and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
The Last Waltz
The Band held a farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976 that pulled together Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and an all-star guest list of peers and friends. Martin Scorsese's concert film titled The Last Waltz is considered a seminal piece of rock history.
Helm had long periods as a solo artist, and his Woodstock home studio was considered an influential staging ground for new music, as well as the site of legendary jam sessions.
He was on the stage as Bob Dylan was booed for going electric, he played at Woodstock, and recorded Muddy Waters in Woodstock at his home studio. He has worked with artists ranging from Emmylou Harris and Allan Toussaint to Elvis Costello and Norah Jones.
Born May 26, 1940, on an Arkansas cotton farm, Mark Lavon Helm was the second of four children. His family always went to the tent shows that travelled the South, bringing a variety of musical acts and inspiring songs such as W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show.
"It was the only time country people like us could see a real staged show with costumes and lights and everything so that was high rolling back in the cotton country, " Helm recalled in a March 2012 interview with PBS.
As a youngster, he learned to play guitar and harmonica and he and his sister Linda would enter talent contests together on the 4-H Club (a youth farm club) circuit.
Elvis shows the way
He saw Elvis Presley in 1954 at a show with Johnny Cash before the King’s fame exploded, and then he heard Elvis again in 1955, after he’d added drums to his act. That sound convinced Helm that rock 'n' roll was the way to go, according to a biography on his official website.
Levon formed his own rock band, the Jungle Bush Beaters, in high school and took up the drums. He met Ronnie Hawkins in 1957, when the musician was putting together a band to play on the Canadian live music circuit.
Helm promised his father he’d finish high school on the road and joined the Hawks, who had hits in 1959 with Forty Days and Mary Lou, and appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.
Hawkins and Helm recruited four talented Canadians — Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson — in the early 1960s and their rock 'n' roll style became influential.
But Helm and his fellow bandmates broke from Hawkins and formed a group they called Levon and the Hawks. That was the band Bob Dylan chose to back him up when he moved from his folk sound to "go electric" in 1965, according to Helm's official bio. Helm was on drums as die-hard folk fans booed Dylan night after night, an experience he says put him off the music business.
The big pink house
Helm left the group temporarily and headed to Arkansas, while Dylan and the rest of the band took up residence in Woodstock, N.Y., in a large, pink house where they wrote and rehearsed new material. Capitol Records gave them a recording contract and Danko coaxed Helm into rejoining them in creating the new sound that emerged in 1968’s Music from Big Pink.
The people of Woodstock called the group of musicians "the band" and that was the name that stuck as the group went forward together.
They became household names appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969 and made seven albums before breaking up in 1976. Many of the roots-tinged songs were versions of traditional songs Helm knew as a child in Arkansas.
In his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, Helm claimed that Robertson took undue credit for writing certain Band songs, when they were in fact a group effort, a point of acrimony that led to a falling out between the former friends.
Helm had built his own barn and studio, and Muddy Waters in Woodstock was one of the first works recorded there, going on to win a Grammy. He began working solo with the RCO All-Stars in 1977, followed by Levon Helm and American Son, released in 1980.
Starred in Coal Miner's Daughter
That same year Helm played Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter, winning great reviews for his first film appearance. He later had film roles in The Right Stuff, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and 2007's Shooter with Mark Wahlberg.
'I've got the best players in the world I get to play with. They just play anything and do anything. I don’t have to worry — it's a free ride for me'—Levon Helm on the Midnight Rambles
Helm worked with The Band’s Danko on a 1983 tour, and in the 1990s, most of the original members got together again and issued three more albums: Jericho, High on the Hog and Jubilation.
In 1998, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer, a development that silenced his voice, though he was able to return with whispered vocals in a number of recent recordings. In 1999, Danko died, putting an end to any hope of a further reunion of The Band.
Instead, Helm began what he called the Midnight Ramble Sessions, a series of live performances at his home studios, which gathered artists such as blues pianist Johnnie Johnson, Phil Lesh, Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters, the Muddy Waters Band, Kris Kristofferson, the Black Crowes and Steve Earle to play with Helm.
The Midnight Rambles
"I’ve got the best seat in the house," Helm said in an interview with PBS, referring to his usual spot in the drummer’s chair.
"I’ve got the best players in the world I get to play with. They just play anything and do anything. I don’t have to worry — it’s a free ride for me."
The Rambles helped pay Helm’s medical bills and paid off his mortgage.
Samples of the concerts were released as Midnight Ramble Music Session, Vol. 1 and Midnight Ramble Music Session, Vol. 2 in 2006. The following year saw the release of Dirt Farmer, Helm's first solo album in 25 years, followed by Electric Dirt in 2009. Those albums also drew on traditional songs Helm recalled from childhood.
"That seemed to be the place to start, some of those old tunes. Those were the ones that made me love music. I went right back to the beginning and tried to make those tunes sound as good as I remember them sounding," he said in a 2007 interview with CBS.
Helm is survived by his wife, Sandy and his daughter Amy, also a musician.