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Levon Helm, Voice of The Band’s Classic Songs, Dies at 71

Levon Helm, Southern Voice of The Band’s Classics
Levon Helm performs at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2010. Photographer: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Levon Helm, the drummer who sang rock classics such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for The Band, the critically acclaimed group that once backed Bob Dylan and counted George Harrison and Eric Clapton among its fans, has died. He was 71.

Helm died today of throat cancer, Rolling Stone magazine reported, citing his longtime guitarist, Larry Campbell. The Times Herald-Record newspaper of Middletown, New York, near Helm’s home, reported that he died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

“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,” his family wrote on his website.

Helm underwent radiation treatments in the 1990s, recovering to produce a Grammy Award-winning album, “Dirt Farmer,” in 2007.

The Arkansas native was the only U.S.-born member of The Band, joining four Canadians. The two surviving members are Robbie Robertson, who was the group’s chief songwriter, and Garth Hudson. Richard Manuel died in 1986, Rick Danko in 1999.

“The Band, more than any other group, put rock and roll back in touch with its roots,” wrote the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which inducted the group in 1994. “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.”

‘Cripple Creek’

The group’s regular drummer, Helm was also among its lead vocalists, adding his southern voice to songs including “Up on Cripple Creek” -- which reached No. 25 on the Billboard chart in 1970, making it The Band’s biggest hit. He also sang “The Weight,” a tale of a traveler who arrives in the town of Nazareth to encounter several mysterious figures. Its well-known chorus begins, “Take a load off, Fanny. Take a load for free.”

“I’ve always thought of myself as the drummer,” he told CBS News’s “Sunday Morning” program in 2007. “I would take my turn to sing whenever I had to, but my joy is to play the drums, of course, and the singing part was just something I glommed my way into.”

The 1978 film documentary “The Last Waltz,” directed by Martin Scorsese, shows a roster of musical luminaries including Clapton and Neil Young chipping in as The Band wrapped up its touring career with a 1976 concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.

Friction in Band

In his 1993 memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” written with Stephen Davis, Helm disclosed that “The Last Waltz” crystallized what had long bothered him about The Band: the image of guitarist Robertson as leader and star, rather than as part of a collaborative team.

“For two hours we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut,” Helm wrote, describing his first screening of the documentary. “The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck.”

Responding to Helm’s criticism, Robertson told the Los Angeles Times: “I never wanted to be the boss, and in fact I never thought I was the boss. I was just trying to organize things so we could do things like make records and go out and play a show somewhere.”

‘Most Extraordinary’

In a statement on his Facebook page yesterday, Robertson said he had visited the ailing Helm in the hospital. “Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me,” Robertson said. “I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”

Mark Lavon Helm was born on May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Arkansas, the second of four children of cotton farmers and music lovers Diamond and Nell Helm, according to a biography on his website.

He got his first guitar at 9 and, three years later, turned a washtub into a string bass for his younger sister, Linda. Performing as “Lavon and Linda,” they won talent contests along the Arkansas 4-H Club circuit, according to the biography.

Helm became drummer for Ronnie Hawkins’s The Hawks, which would bring him together with the other members of what would be The Band. First, though, as Levon and the Hawks, they were enlisted by Dylan as his backup musicians for a 1965 concert in New York City, and then -- without Helm -- for Dylan’s 1965-1966 world tour, according to “The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.”

Debut Album

With Helm back on drums, the group began work on its own material, mostly written by Robertson and Manuel. The Band’s first album, “Music from Big Pink” -- a reference to the group’s house in West Saugerties, New York -- was released in 1968. One year later came the group’s second album, “The Band,” which included “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”

Helm won Grammy Awards for “Dirt Farmer,” for his follow-up 2009 album “Electric Dirt” and for “Ramble at the Ryman,” a live album recorded at a 2008 performance in Nashville. The Band itself never won a traditional Grammy but did receive one for lifetime achievement in 2008.

Beginning in 2004, Helm performed in a series of concerts called the “Midnight Ramble Sessions,” staged in a barn at his home in Woodstock, New York. The freewheeling sessions featured such guest artists as Emmylou Harris, Dr. John and Norah Jones. Ticket sales helped cover his medical bills, Helm told PBS in an interview broadcast in March.

Medical Bills

“At the time we started, I had more bills than I had just about anything except friends,” he said.

He also had a film career, beginning with a role as the father of Loretta Lynn (played by Sissy Spacek) in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980).

Helm married the former Sandra Dodd in 1981. He had a daughter, Amy, from an earlier relationship with singer-songwriter Libby Titus.

On April 17, his wife and daughter wrote on his website: “Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration. 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.”

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