Levon Helm, whose soulful vocals and drumming as a member of The Band helped define American roots music in the ’60s and ’70s, died Thursday (April 19) following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 71.
He sang lead vocals on several of The Band’s most popular songs, including “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Ophelia.”
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 and underwent radiation treatments that damaged his vocal cords. After his recovery, he continued to play drums, mandolin and guitar but enlisted guest vocalists for the Midnight Ramble concert series at his studio in Woodstock, N.Y.
He eventually returned to singing and touring and won Grammys for his Dirt Farmer album (released in 2007), Electric Dirt (2009) and Ramble at the Ryman (2011). The latter, recorded in 2008 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, includes guest appearances by Sheryl Crow, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller, Billy Bob Thornton and others.
As a character actor, Helm made his film debut in 1980 as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. His talent led to roles with Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris and Dennis Quaid in The Right Stuff (1983) and Tommy Lee Jones in The Three Burials of Melquiades (2005) and In the Electric Mist (2009).
Helm was born in Elaine, Ark., and raised on a cotton farm. He grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM-AM/Nashville and the blues music of Sonny Boy Williamson on KFFA-AM/Helena, Ark. His father bought him a guitar at age 9, and he gained additional musical inspiration after seeing a concert in Helena in 1954 featuring Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and newcomer Elvis Presley.
After forming a band in high school, he graduated and joined the Hawks, rock ’n’ roller Ronnie Hawkins’s backing band, in 1957. Signed to Roulette Records two years later, they had two hit singles — “Forty Days” and “Mary Lou” — and appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
In the early ’60s, Helm played in the Hawks with guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko and keyboardists Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. They later left Hawkins and continued performing as Levon & the Hawks.
When Bob Dylan veered toward electric instrumentation in the mid ’60s, he hired the musicians as his backing band. With negative reaction from hardcore folk music audiences who preferred Dylan’s old acoustic style, Helm left the group and returned to Arkansas. He reunited with Dylan and the other musicians after they moved to Woodstock and began working on new material at a big pink house they rented.
Local residents referred to them generically as “the band,” so Helm, Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson began calling themselves The Band. Working without Dylan, they released their debut album, Music From Big Pink, in 1968. Blending rock, folk and country influences, it was critically acclaimed and is regarded as a landmark in what was later to be known as Americana music. After releasing seven albums, the musicians called it quits with a farewell concert at Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. Filmed by director Martin Scorsese, the concert documentary included guest performances by Hawkins, Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr and Muddy Waters.
In the ’80s, Helm, Danko, Manuel and Hudson reformed The Band without Robertson, who was the group’s primary songwriter. Manuel committed suicide in 1986, and Danko died in 1999.
After being treated for throat cancer, Helm eased back into music by hosting his Midnight Ramble concert series at his studio in Woodstock, N.Y. The lengthy list of special guests at the intimate performances include Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Elvis Costello, Phil Lesh, Donald Fagen, Hot Tuna, Norah Jones, My Morning Jacket and many others.
He also took his Midnight Ramble concerts on the road, including several performances at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. He had been scheduled to return to the Ryman on May 6.
As a member of The Band, Helm was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 by Eric Clapton. In 2003, he received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance.