They followed Dylan to the Woodstock area, where they practiced together in a house with bright pink siding. The locals simply referred to them as "The Band." They adopted the name when they issued their first album, the acclaimed "Music from Big Pink," in 1968.
The Band would become one of the most influential groups of the era for their fusion of rock, country, gospel and the blues to create a distinctively American sound. But at the peak of their success, the group called it quits. They played together in public one last time in 1976, a farewell in San Francisco that included appearances by Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
They called it "The Last Waltz" and gave a young director named Martin Scorsese free reign to film them onstage and off, creating a documentary that memorialized one of the legendary concerts of all time -- as well as the tensions that helped to drive the band apart.
Helm also appeared in movies as an actor, making his screen debut in "The Coal Miner's Daughter," playing Loretta Lynn's father, Ted Webb. He also had a role in "The Right Stuff."
But music was his first love. After The Band's breakup, Helm recorded several solo albums, toured with Ringo Starr, and periodically reunited and performed with some of The Band's other members in the 1980s and '90s -- but never with Robertson, with whom he had a falling out.
The two had an emotional reunion when Robertson learned last week that Helm was dying and he asked to see him at a New York hospital.
"It hit me really hard because I thought he had beaten throat cancer and had no idea that he was this ill," Robertson wrote on Tuesday on his website.
"I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together. ... Levon is one of the most extraordinarily talented people I've ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever."
Hudson -- the only other surviving member of The Band -- posted a statement on his website this evening.
"I am terribly sad," he said. "Thank you for 50 years of friendship and music. No more sorrows, no more troubles, no more pain. He went peacefully to that beautiful, marvelous, wonderful place. ... Levon, I'm proud of you."
In his "Nightline" interview, Helm said that after all he had been through, he savored his comeback.
"I can sing my share of the songs for the first time in a long time and not be as scared as I was," he said. "I didn't have any plans on even being here, much less being able to try and sing some harmonies with everybody, so it's a wonderful life."