Levon Helm, a passionate musician, actor and the last surviving lead singer of The Band, whose Southern tenor was heard on the group’s classic songs “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” died Thursday afternoon after a long battle with throat cancer. The drummer and mandolin player was 71.
“He passed away peacefully at 1:30 this afternoon surrounded by his friends and bandmates,” Larry Campbell, Helm’s guitarist, told Rolling Stone. “All his friends were there, and it seemed like Levon was waiting for them. Ten minutes after they left we sat there and he just faded away. He did it with dignity. It was even two days ago they thought it would happen within hours, but he held on. It seems like he was Levon up to the end, doing it the way he wanted to do it. He loved us, we loved him.”
Helm’s website confirmed the news, saying the artist “will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.”
Since Tuesday, when it was revealed he was “in the final stages of his battle with cancer,” there has been an outpouring of prayers and remembrances from fans and friends. His former bandmate, Garth Hudson, posted a statement to his website on Thursday evening.
“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.”
LEVON AT THE HELM
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
“Rag Mama Rag”
“Up On Cripple Creek”
“Don’t Do It”
Helm 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 had 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.
“We’d always wanted our own life, so to speak,” Helm told Band biographer Barney Hoskyns in “Across the Great Divide.” “I never wanted to be Dylan’s drumer, or anybody else’s. We were The Band for several people, and it worked out well, but now it was time to be The Band for ourselves.”
Dylan himself had fond memories of Helm on Thursday, calling his death “so sad to talk about.”
“He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation,” Dylan wrote on his official website. “This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I’m going to miss him, as I’m sure a whole lot of others will too.”
During their solo period, 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.” Live, the band stripped their shows of theatricality, and the result was often great, though Robertson’s chronic stage fright — chronicled in his song of the same name — caused some problems early on.
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.
While Helm and The Band’s commercial success didn’t quite match their untold levels of influence on American music, they did however string together six top 10 albums in a 5-year period, starting with the self-titled 1969 effort, which peaked at No. 9. Later, “Stage Fright” reached No. 5 in 1970 and the live album “Rock of Ages” reached No. 6 in 1972. Their biggest hit was actually a collaboration with Bob Dylan, 1974’s “Planet Waves,” which was No. 1 for four weeks.
Their catalog has sold 2.8 million albums since 1991, the first year of the SoundScan era.
“The music community has lost a gifted and treasured icon, and our deepest condolences go out to his family, friends, and fans everywhere,” Neil Portnow, president of The Recording Academy, said upon hearing the news.
Additionally, Helm 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.