Levon Helm, singer and drummer for The Band, in final stages of cancer
The Band singer and drummer Levon Helm is in the final stages of cancer, according to a note posted on his website Tuesday by his wife, Sandy, and daughter, Amy.
“Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey,” the note said. “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.”
At Saturday’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland, former Band guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson prefaced his induction speech for recording engineers Cosimo Matassa, Tom Dowd and Glyn Johns saying “Before I start, I need to send my love and blessings to my old band mate Levon Helm,” but he did not elaborate.
Arkansas-born Helm was the only non-Canadian member of the Hawks, a group that first backed early rocker Ronnie Hawkins, and then gained fame in the mid-1960s accompanying Bob Dylan when the singer and songwriter "went electric" to the consternation of many hardcore folk music fans who'd previously supported him.
The Band worked closely with Dylan after he went into seclusion following a near-fatal 1966 motorcycle accident, recording a batch of influential songs that were widely bootlegged and only surfaced in official form in 1975 as "The Basement Tapes." The Band released its first album on its own in 1968, "Music from Big Pink," to broad critical acclaim. It included one of the group's signature songs "The Weight." It followed with the even more highly lauded sophomore album "The Band," which included "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Rag Mama Rag."
As one of three lead singers for the band, along with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, Helm was the dominant voice on such signature songs as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Ophelia,” “Don’t Do It” and “Daniel and the Sacred Harp.” Manuel committed suicide in 1986 and Danko died of drug-related heart failure in 1999.
Members of the Band decided in 1976 to quit touring, and threw a gala final concert they called “The Last Waltz,” which was captured on film by director Martin Scorsese. Here's a clip of Helm singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" at that concert:
After "The Last Waltz," Robertson began pursuing a series of solo projects, while Helm, Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson engaged in various projects, including Helm's acting role as Loretta Lynn's father in the Academy Award-winning 1979 movie "Coal Miner's Daughter."
The group reconvened and recorded a new studio album, “Jericho,” in 1993, without Robertson, and continued to tour periodically until Helm’s health deteriorated because of the throat cancer diagnosed in 1998.
Following radiation treatment, his voice was little more than a whisper, but he hosted a series of loose performances at The Barn, his home and studio in upstate New York, where he slowly regained much of the quality that distinguished his work in the Band.
In his 1993 autobiography, Helm told of his falling out with Robertson over songwriting credits and publishing royalties related to the group's highly regarded catalog, which was singularly credited to Robertson. The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Helm mounted a comeback and subsequently released three albums, all of which garnered Grammy Awards. He received the 2007 Grammy for traditional folk album for “Dirt Farmer,” the 2009 Americana album award for its follow-up, “Electric Dirt,” and again for 2011's "Ramble at the Ryman" live album recorded at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium.
He was the subject of a 2010 documentary, "Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm."
[Update at 5:27 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said Helm had won two Grammy Awards for his post cancer-treatment albums. All three won Grammys. Also it said he had undergone a laryngectomy. He refused the laryngectomy and underwent radiation treatment instead.]
Photo of Bob Dylan's 1974 "Before the Flood" tour stop at the Forum in Inglewood, where he was backed by the Band (l-r): Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. Credit: Kathleen Ballard / Los Angeles Times.