Levon Helm, a treasured voice in Americana music whose Southern drawl and busy-but-tight drumming brought an authenticity to The Band, is losing his decade-long battle with cancer, his family announced on Tuesday.
“Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer,” a message reads on Helm’s website. “Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.”
It is signed by his daughter Amy, an artist who often performs with her father, and wife Sandy.
LEVON AT THE HELM
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
“Rag Mama Rag”
“Up On Cripple Creek”
Helm, 71, was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s and underwent intensive radiation treatment which greatly damaged his voice. Over time he was able to sing again, but his once-strong tenor had become the weathered rasp that can be heard on his Grammy winning 2007 album, “Dirt Farmer.” The Arkansas native has carried on a busy touring schedule and hosts “Midnight Ramble” events at his barn in Woodstock, New York.
Several of his scheduled shows in recent weeks have been canceled.
At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday, Helm’s former bandmate Robbie Robertson offered his “prayers and love” for the drummer who, early on in their partnership, was the musical leader. Levon and The Hawks emerged in 1963 after Helm and Canadian transplants Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson and pianist Richard Manuel broke off from Ronnie Hawkins.
By the time the fivesome formed the independent version of The Band — following a stint backing Bob Dylan — in the late 1960s, the group had moved to Saugerties, NY and adopted a decidedly un-psychedelic mystique, wearing old-timey clothes and writing songs that matched.
Timeless albums soaked in American folklore followed, including 1968’s “Music From Big Pink,” 1969’s “The Band” and “Stage Fright” a year later. While the band was blessed with three gifted singers, Helm, who also played guitar and mandolin, sang lead on many of their top songs. Early favorites with Helm’s drawl at the mic include “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” “Chest Fever,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Jemima Surrender” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
A creative lull followed this early dash, but the group found its way again with 1975’s “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” and the band-altering live album/Martin Scorsese-directed concert film “The Last Waltz” in 1978. The band carried on in different forms over the years, though tragedy has taken both of Helm’s co-singers: Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986 at 42 and Danko died of heart failure in 1999 at age 56.
“People ask me about ‘The Last Waltz’ all the time,” Helm writes in a forward of “This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.” “Rick Danko dying at fifty-six is what I think about ‘The Last Waltz.’ It was the biggest f–kin’ rip-off that ever happened to The Band — without a doubt.”
The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Helm has also tried his hand at acting over the years, and appeared in several films notably “The Right Stuff” and his screen debut “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” in which he played Loretta Lynn’s father, Ted Webb. He performed Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the film’s soundtrack.