Levon Helm, the singer and drummer from Arkansas who provided the dusty country soul in The Band's rock and roll, died Thursday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 71.
His wife, Sandy, and daughter, Amy, announced he was in the final stages this week, declaring, "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."
He was best known for his vocals on such classics as "The Weight," "Up On Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and for unflappably backing Bob Dylan at several key points in his career, Helm was "the only drummer who can make you cry," critic Jon Carroll once wrote. He also won acclaim as an actor for portraying Loretta Lynn's father in "Coal Miner's Daughter."
"There is something about Levon Helm's voice that is contained in all of our voices," Jim James, frontman for rock band My Morning Jacket, wrote in Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers issue in 2008. "It is ageless, timeless and has no race."
Max Weinberg, drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, added in his book "The Big Beat": "Levon plays the drums and sings with a conviction and emotional intensity that rings true. That he does both at the same time is remarkable."
"Levon is an icon in American music," said Jim Faith, who had booked Helm as the headliner for the opening night of the Great South Bay Music Festival in July. "I always try to bring the true artists to GSB as we did with Odetta a few years ago. And selfishly, I just loved him from the first I heard 'Music From Big Pink.' "
Born May 26, 1940, in the tiny town of Marvell, Ark., Helm absorbed the Grand Ole Opry and blues shows from Nashville radio as a kid. At age 8, he took up guitar, but soon switched to drums after taking in traveling musical troupes. such as the F.S. Walcott Rabbit's Foot Minstrels. "They had costumes and dancers and comedians and a master of ceremonies with a top hat, twirling a cane," Helm later told Rolling Stone. "I'd be sitting there right in front of the drummer, just staring at him all night."
Eventually, Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas rockabilly star, hired Helm to be the drummer in his barnstorming backup band, The Hawks. As rockabilly began to fade in the United States in the late '50s, Hawkins relocated to Toronto. Homesick, all The Hawks except Helm drifted back to the American South, and were replaced by Canadian locals such as guitarist Robbie Robertson and bassist Rick Danko. In 1963, The Hawks left Hawkins, renaming themselves the Levon Helm Sextet and Levon and The Hawks, among other things.
In the summer of 1965, the band was playing at a resort in Somers Point, N.J., when Dylan called. "We had never heard of Bob Dylan. But he had heard of us," Helm said in a 1968 Rolling Stone cover story on The Band. "He said, 'You wanna play Hollywood Bowl?' So we asked him who else was gonna be on the show. 'Just us,' he said."
Always the drummer, Helm was also one of several alternating lead singers in The Band, the deep counterbalance to high, lonesome voices such as Danko and pianist Richard Manuel.
"What allowed The Band to redefine rock and roll in 1968 and 1969, with 'Music From Big Pink' and 'The Band,' was that it played and sang with such musical sympathy, it was meaningless to untangle one man's contributions from another's," critic Greil Marcus wrote. (This sympathetic quality is especially evident on Dylan's "The Basement Tapes," recorded with The Band in the late '60s and eventually released in 1975.)
But The Band drifted apart, particularly Helm and Robertson, who would feud for decades over songwriting credits. They agreed to play one last all-star blowout at San Francisco's Winterland in 1976, which Martin Scorsese documented in "The Last Waltz." In his 1993 autobiography "This Wheel's On Fire," Helm criticized Scorsese and Robertson for making it look like The Band was merely the guitarist's backup band, and the two began a long habit of not showing up for reunions when the other was present.
Helm, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, and declared bankruptcy to keep his home-studio barn in Woodstock. In 2004, Helm began hosting "Midnight Rambles," with guests from Dr. John to Elvis Costello stopping by.
Helm's first album in 25 years, 2007's "Dirt Farmer," shows both the damaged state of his voice and his resilience.
"I've always worried about singing in the middle of the note and trying to get it as pitch-perfect as possible. I can hear a lot better than I can sing, so it's a hell of a challenge to get it to please my ear. I realized that there were a lot of nights when I'd been overly hard on myself," Helm told New York magazine. "Now if I hit a bad note, I don't fall out with myself a bit."