Levon Helm, singer and drummer for the Band, dies at 71
This post has been updated. See bottom for details.
Levon Helm, the widely respected and influential singer and drummer with the Band, whose Arkansas drawl colored the group's signature hits, including "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," died Thursday in New York of throat cancer. He was 71.
One of three lead singers of the group that first gained fame backing Bob Dylan when he "went electric" in 1965, Helm and the Band largely created the template for a genre now labeled "Americana music" for its blend of rock, country, folk, blues and gospel strains.
“Levon is one of the most extraordinary, talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me," the Band's guitarist Robbie Robertson said in a statement. "I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”
Helm had been diagnosed in 1998 with throat cancer, which threatened to end his singing career; he declined a recommended laryngectomy, opting for radiation treatment instead. He died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Over a matter of several years, he regained the use of his voice, enjoying a latter-day career resurgence that yielded three Grammy Awards for his post-illness recordings “Dirt Farmer,” “Electric Dirt” and “Ramble at the Ryman.”
“The Band, more than any other group, put rock and roll back in touch with its roots,” reads the group’s entry at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted the Band 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. They projected a sense of community in the turbulent late-'60s and early-'70s -- a time when the fabric of community in the United States was fraying.”
[Update at 3:32 p.m.: Garth Hudson, Helm's fellow member of the Band, posted the following message today on his Facebook page: "I am terribly sad. Thank you for 50 years of friendship and music. Memories that live on with us. No more sorrows, no more troubles, no more pain. He went peacefully to that beautiful marvelous wonderful place. He was Buddy Rich's favorite rock drummer...and my friend. Levon, I'm proud of you." --Garth]
Photo: Levon Helm at the drums in 1974 at the Forum in Inglewood on the Band's tour with Bob Dylan. Credit: Los Angeles Times.