Levon Helm Dies: 'The Band' Singer Was 71

One of the legendary voices in American music, rock 'n roll has been silenced.

April 18, 2012, 10:50 PM

April 19, 2012 — -- Levon Helm, the singer and drummer who anchored the legendary rock group The Band in the 1960s and '70s, and enjoyed a comeback nearly four decades later after throat cancer had reduced his voice to a whisper, has died.

He was 71.

Helm's website, levonhelm.com, confirmed his death.

"Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon," the site's home page said. "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."

Helm appeared frail in recent years, but there was no inkling his health had taken a grave turn until Tuesday, when his wife and daughter posted a statement on his website announcing, "Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer."

"Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way on this stage of his journey," they wrote.

Helm was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 with the other members of The Band. And in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named him as one of the "100 greatest singers of all time."

His voice reflected an Arkansas drawl and lifetime of musical influences, from country to blues and soul. He could be haunting or howling, melodic or mournful.

That voice soared to prominence with The Band, providing the lead on such lasting classics as "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek."

But then he endured a series of personal crises that nearly ended his career and his life.

In 1991, a fire destroyed Helm's home and studio in Woodstock, N.Y. And in 1998, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and suffered through 28 radiation treatments, leaving him barely able to speak. The cost of his new mortgage and medical care drove him into bankruptcy.

He began hosting a series of jam sessions at his rebuilt home to help pay the bills and celebrate the music he loved. Musicians from Elvis Costello to Emmylou Harris dropped in to play with him. The sessions, which came to be known as The Midnight Ramble, continued until a few weeks before his death.

Helm's voice gradually came back, first in a whisper and then a raspy version of what it had been -- about 80 percent restored, he once said. In 2007, he released his first major solo album in 25 years, the critically acclaimed "Dirt Farmer." Two years later, he released "Electric Dirt" as a follow-up. Both won Grammy Awards. His comeback was complete.

"It's amazing," Helm told the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y. "Just one miracle after another."

Mark Lavon Helm -- he became known as Levon after one of his early band mates kept pronouncing it that way -- was born in 1940 and grew up on a cotton farm in Turkey Scratch, Ark.

His father often took the family to see traveling music shows. Little Levon was 6 years old when he saw his first live performance, by Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. The young boy was smitten.

"This really tattooed my brain. I've never forgotten it," Helm wrote in "This Wheel's On Fire, The Story of Levon Helm and The Band," his 1993 autobiography.

Helm learned to play several instruments and performed in Arkansas throughout his teenage years before joining Ronnie Hawkins' rockabilly band, The Hawks, after high school. He hoped music would be a way out of Arkansas, and it was.

"I was praying that it was," Helm told ABC's "Nightline" in 2005. "Because I was a terrible cotton farmer. You know, I was a pretty good tractor driver. But I just didn't have the heart for it. And, you know, I would look up and see a plane going across and wonder if it was going to New York or somewhere."

Helm and Hawkins played frequently in Canada, where they recruited other musicians to play with them -- guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, who played the organ.

Helm and his new band mates eventually split from Hawkins and struck out on their own, touring as Levon and the Hawks before becoming Bob Dylan's road band in the mid-1960s.

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."

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