Levon Helm of The Band dies at 71
Levon Helm, drummer for The Band and the voice heard on many of the group's most enduring songs, has died following a battle with cancer. He was 71.
Helm, who died Thursday afternoon (4/19) in New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, had kept his disease a secret from the public until earlier this week, when his wife Sandy and daughter Amy revealed on his website that Helm was in the end stages of his cancer fight.
"Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey," read the message, which has since been replaced with an updated version following Helm's death. "Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul."
Born in Arkansas in 1940, Helm was recruited out of high school to join Ronnie Hawkins' popular club act, The Hawks. The group eventually relocated to Toronto, where Helm and Hawkins recruited several new Canadian band members and the group continued touring as a bar act throughout the U.S. and Canada. In the mid-'60s, larger fame came calling in the form of Bob Dylan, who recruited the group as the backing band for his new (and controversial at the time) electric music concerts. Helm was initially disheartened by negative fan response to Dylan's newly plugged-in status, and returned home to Arkansas; he eventually spent two years working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico until the band asked him to return to his old spot.
He came back to a very different kind of group. Hawkins was long gone, and the band was simply calling itself "The Band," a moniker that would stick. The Band had holed up with Dylan in Woodstock, NY, for most of 1967, recording music that would eventually be released to the public on 1975's "The Basement Tapes." By the time Helm returned to the fold, the group was preparing to record its debut album, which became 1968's "Music From Big Pink." While multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel shouldered much of the vocal burden on "Big Pink," Helm sang lead on the record's biggest hit, "The Weight," which peaked at No. 63 in the U.S. and worked its way into the Top 30 in both Canada and the U.K. The album established The Band as legitimate artists in their own right, ranked separately from Dylan, and also marked them as the rock world's leading examples of American roots-based music makers.
The Band continued recording new work through the early '70s before famously calling it quits and ending with a legendary 1976 farewell performance in San Francisco. The concert was captured on film by Martin Scorsese and released commercially as "The Last Waltz." It is still considered one of the greatest concert films ever released by movie and rock critics alike, although Helm himself reportedly disliked the film and accused Scorsese and The Band's Robbie Robertson of conspiring to make it appear that Robertson was the group's leader in the movie. Helm's criticisms were later capsulated in his 1993 autobiography, "This Wheel's On Fire."
Following the end of The Band, Helm pursued a solo career, releasing four records in fairly quick succession, capped by a self-titled 1982 effort, and then bouncing to a variety of miscellaneous projects, including touring with a reunited version of The Band sans Robertson, who reportedly wasn't on speaking terms with Helm at the time. The comeback effort weathered the 1986 suicide of Manuel while on tour, and carried on through much of the '90s, resulting in several new studio releases, capped by 1998's "Jubilation," in celebration of the group's 30th anniversary. Helm also pursued an on-and-off acting career, appearing in movies such as "The Right Stuff" and "Feeling Minnesota." His most memorable role came opposite Sissy Spacek in "Coal Miner's Daughter," where he portrayed Loretta Lynn's father.
In recent years, Helm had largely retreated to his home and studio in Woodstock, The Barn, where he oversaw a regular series of concerts and recording sessions called "The Midnight Ramble," which would generally involve a number of regulars and a few surprise guest stars. The Ramble was an outgrowth of an idea Helm had explain to Scorsese in "The Last Waltz," based on the early 20th century tradition of traveling minstrel and medicine shows: "After the finale, they'd have the midnight ramble," Helm had told the director. "With young children off the premises, the show resumed: "The songs would get a little bit juicier. The jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times. A lot of the rock and roll duck walks and moves came from that."
Helm and Robertson's often contentious relationship took a turn toward respect at some , possibly indefinable, point, exemplified by a visit the latter performer paid to his dying friend in the hospital earlier this week, according to Robertson's Facebook page. "I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together," he wrote.
Helm's health had been a matter of speculation among fans recently, worry fueled by a comment Robertson made during a speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies earlier this week, when he sent out "love and prayers" to his former bandmate. The remark followed a series of canceled Helm live shows earlier this month, reportedly due to a slipped disc in his back.