Sunday, April 20, 2014
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RIP, Levon Helm, drummer and singer in The Band

Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born drummer and singer for The Band, the four-fifths Canadian ensemble whose music in the 1960s and '70s, some of it with Bob Dylan, endures as a high-water mark of quintessential American rock and roll, died of cancer Thursday. He was 71.

RIP, Levon Helm, drummer and singer in The Band

Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born drummer and singer for The Band, the four-fifths Canadian ensemble whose music in the 1960s and '70s, some of it with Bob Dylan, endures as a high-water mark of quintessential American rock and roll, died of cancer Thursday. He was 71.

"Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon," according to an announcement. "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."

Mr. Helm went on to a fruitful career as an actor and solo artist after The Band's 1976 valedictory concert, which Martin Scorsese immortalized in The Last Waltz, widely regarded died as as one of rock's great live albums and concert films.

Diagnosed with cancer of the vocal cords in 1997, Mr. almost entirely lost his voice for a while as a result of radiation treatments. In the mid-2000s, though, he began to perform and sing again at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., at concerts known as the Midnight Ramble, featuring family members and guest artists known.

On April 17, his daughter Amy and wife, Sandy, posted a note on Mr. Helm's website announcing that "Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer . . . he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room with music, lay down the back beat, and make people dance! He did it every time he took the stage."

Mark Lavon Helm was born in Marvell, Ark., and grew up in nearby Turkey Scratch, a farming community in the Mississippi Delta cotton country. As a child, Mr. Helm was inspired by Elvis Presley, Sonny Boy Williamson and Conway Twitty, among others.

When he was 17, the multi-instrumentalist hooked up with Ronnie Hawkins, a fellow Arkansan who in 1958 took him to Toronto, where the market was hot for authentic Southern rockabilly music. There, Mr. Helm and Hawkins put together the band that would first be known as the Hawks, then Levon & the Hawks, and later The Band.

Its members, who played multiple instruments, included Garth Hudson, singers Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, and Robbie Robertson, the guitarist and songwriter with whom Helm would later publicly feud over control of the rights to The Band's songs.

The Hawks backed Hawkins on hits "Mary Lou" and "Who Do You Love" before going out on their own. In the summer of 1965, they were in Somers Point, N.J., working as the house bar band at Tony Mart's. Helm took a call from Dylan, who was looking for a group of rock musicians to back him as he transitioned from folk singer to electric poet rocker.

By the fall, all five members of the group were backing Dylan, though Mr. Helm quickly tired of being booed by hostile folkies and left the group. Two years later, he rejoined them at a rented house known as Big Pink in West Saugerties, N.Y.

The Band's legacy rests on the albums Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969), as well as Dylan's The Basement Tapes, which was recorded at the same time but didn't come out until 1975. On songs like "Up On Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," with Mr. Helm on lead vocals, as well as "The Weight" and "I Shall Be Released," they mixed together country, soul, rhythm and blues and rock in a rich, allusive blend.

A familial warmth at odds with the intergenerational strife tearing the country apart suffused the group's music, which still espoused communal values, as signified by the photo inside the Big Pink gatefold that gathered the Band with three generations of family members.

The Band continued to make worthwhile albums like Stage Fright (1970) and the all-covers Moondog Matinee (1973), and backed Dylan on several LPs, including Before the Flood and Planet Waves (both 1974). And on The Last Waltz, they appeared to go out in style, with guest performances by the Staples Singers, Neil Young and Muddy Waters.

Robertson never again played with Mr. Helm and the others. The Band reformed without him in 1983 and released three albums with Jim Weider replacing Robertson. Manuel committed suicide after a Band show in 1986, and Danko died in 1999.

As an actor, Mr. Helm played Loretta Lynn's father in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner's Daughter and also appeared in The Right Stuff (1983) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005).

Mainly, though, he settled into a role as a beloved elder statesman, his generous spirit all the more treasured after his cancer fight. "If you pour some music on whatever's wrong," he once said, "it'll sure help out." A performance at one of his Rambles became a de rigeur pilgrimage for acts like Elvis Costello, Norah Jones and David Bromberg, and Mr. Helm relished the role of host, saying his spot behind the drum kit was "the best seat in the house."

Mr. Helm won Grammys for 2007's Dirt Farmer, 2009's Electric Dirt, and last year's Ramble at the Ryman. Elton John named one of his songs "Levon" after Helm, and country songwriter Robert Earl Keen wrote the tribute "The Man Behind The Drums," whose chorus goes:

"Levon digs the doghouse, playing in The Band / Get your body movin', celebrate your soul . . . that's sure enough rock and roll."

Earlier this year, a gaunt Mr. Helm spoke with National Public Radio interviewer Marco Werman after a two-hour Midnight Ramble performance. "I'm not the poster boy for good health," Mr. Helm said. "But as long as I've got the energy to make music, I'm doing all right."

Above, Helm, in the middle of The Band. Below, singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in The Last Waltz.

Previously: Chubby Checker, Dick Clark and "The Twist" Follow In The Mix on Twitter

Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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