Levon Helm, who for many represented the heart and soul of The Band, died today, April 19, in New York following a long battle with throat cancer. Helm, known for his strong backbeat on the drums and his Dixie-fried vocals, was 71.
Helm had canceled all of his scheduled gigs in the days preceding his death, and fans were made aware of the gravity of his condition when fellow Band co-founder Robbie Robertson asked attendees at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for their “love and prayers.” A message on Helm’s website by his wife Sandy and daughter Amy made a similar request.
Within hours of the announcement, thousands of tributes appeared on Helm’s Facebook page from fans who’d been touched by his music and his strength and commitment during his final years.
The only American member of the quintessential Americana quintet, Helm—who also played mandolin, guitar and other instruments—had managed to beat the odds for nearly two decades since being diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s. Undergoing radiation treatments, Helm survived but virtually destroyed his vocal cords. Over time he was able to gain back partial and then nearly full use of his voice, and reviews of Helm’s final recordings—including 2008’s Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer—praised the strength of his singing, while acknowledging the rasp he had acquired.
Mark Lavon Helm, born May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Ark., grew up surrounded by music—his cotton farmer father was a musician and bought Lavon, as he was called during his childhood, his first guitar at age 9. Having become enamored of all kinds of music, young Lavon (who recalled seeing Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys at age 6) often snuck over to the studios of radio station KFFA in Helena, Ark., to watch blues great Sonny Boy Williamson broadcast his King Biscuit Time program.
After seeing Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis in performance, Helm, impressed by their drummers, decided to take up that instrument as well. Although he had played in a local rock and roll band, the Jungle Bush Beaters, it wasn’t until 1957, when Helm came into contact with fellow Arkansan rocker Ronnie Hawkins, that his career as a professional musician took off. After relocating to Canada and adding Canadians Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson to the group, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks became one of the most respected touring bands of the day, despite a lack of major commercial success. The group placed two singles on the Billboard chart in 1959, “40 Days” and “Mary Lou,” both on Roulette Records.
Eventually breaking free of Hawkins and renaming themselves Levon and the Hawks (the spelling change came because the Canadians couldn’t pronounce Lavon correctly), the group continued to find work. But it wasn’t until 1965, when Bob Dylan made his electric move, that the four Canadians and lone American were thrust into the national spotlight. Helm was present as Dylan’s fans booed his change of style and, disheartened, he split from the group and headed back to Arkansas, where he stayed for two years, working odd jobs.
By the time he was invited to rejoin his former bandmates in 1967, much had changed. Dylan, having been injured in a motorcycle accident, had largely withdrawn from the public eye, setting himself and the Hawks up in a house in Woodstock, N.Y., they christened Big Pink. There Dylan wrote prolifically, recording dozens of new songs with the Hawks in the basement of their country hideaway. The so-called Basement Tapes were later bootlegged widely, and only received a partial, official release years after the fact.
In 1968, The Band was officially born, their name something of an afterthought because they’d been known to that point simply as “Dylan’s band.” Signed to Capitol Records, they recorded Music from Big Pink, an album so revolutionary in its time because its stripped-down songs completely went against the grain of the period’s reigning psychedelic music. With songs written by lead guitarist Robertson, Music from Big Pink evoked a simpler, less chaotic time, best symbolized by “The Weight,” on which Helm sang lead.
The Band’s image as champions of a less encumbered lifestyle and down-home values was perfected on their second, self-titled album. On its stark front cover, the five hirsute musicians, pictured in black and white, appeared more to be Civil War-era farmers than a rock band, and the songs, among them “Rag Mama Rag” and the Helm-sung “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” reinforced The Band’s image as something apart from the standard rock band of the time. Although they appeared at 1969’s Woodstock festival, and were revered by the rock audience and fellow artists, The Band seemed to travel in their own orbit.
That became less so in subsequent years. Albums such as 1970’s Stage Fright and 1971’s Cahoots saw The Band leave behind that image and move closer to the rock mainstream, while retaining their roots/Americana base. Moondog Matinee, in 1973, was an album of covers of old rock and roll songs but the big news of that year was The Band’s sharing of the bill with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band at a concert in Watkins Glen, N.Y. With 600,000 in attendance, it became the largest gathering at a music event to that time.
The Band continued until 1976, retaining their popularity, until deciding to go out in style with a performance at Bill Graham’s Winterland Arena in San Francisco on Thanksgiving. “The Last Waltz,” as the concert was billed, featured a parade of guest artists who’d associated in some way with The Band: Hawkins, Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and several others. Filmed by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz is generally considered one of the top contenders for best rock concert film of all time. (Helm disavowed the film after its release and he and Robertson remained on sour terms following the group’s dissolution.)
With The Band dissolved, Helm went solo, first releasing an album in 1977 called Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars and subsequently recording a string of solo albums. When The Band reunited in 1983 sans Robertson, Helm was on board, and he, Danko and Hudson continued to tour and record with other musicians as The Band even after the suicide death of Manuel during a 1986 tour. Helm and Danko later toured briefly with Ringo Starr as a member of the latter’s All-Starr Band (Danko died in 1999), but what truly brought Helm back into the limelight was a series of casual concerts he held regularly in the recording studio on his Woodstock property. Called Midnight Rambles, the shows featured Helm and a revolving cast of performing guests—as well as Helm and his band—and were a consistently hot ticket. Artists ranging from My Morning Jacket, Mumford & Sons and Dawes to contemporaries such as Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello played Helm’s hallowed barn. Helm also continued to tour (at times taking the Ramble concept on the road) and record as much as his health allowed. His string of Grammy wins and the success of the Rambles gave him one of the biggest comebacks in recent rock history. He also became something of a icon for a new generation of indie, jam and folk musicians who came of age well after The Last Waltz concert.
Helm’s final albums were Dirt Farmer, in 2007, Electric Dirt (2009) and Ramble at the Ryman (2011). The latter two each won Grammys for Best Americana Album and the Ryman show was also released on DVD. A documentary, Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, was released in 2010. Despite their longstanding feud, Robertson visited Helm in his final days and posted a public message about their drummer where he described him as an “older brother.”
In addition to his music work, Helm also had a second career as an accomplished actor, appearing in such films as The Right Stuff and Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Named one of the 100 best singers of all-time by Rolling Stone, Levon Helm was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. In 2008, Helm, along with the other members of The Band, received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Grammys.
All of that recognition was no doubt appreciated by Levon Helm, but he never let it get to his head. As his family posted on his website shortly before he passed, it was always about the music: “He has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage.”
At the time of his death, Helm was surrounded by members of his current band who were united in song.