Drummer, guitarist, mandolin player, singer and actor Levon Helm, best known for his tenure with The Band, passed away earlier this afternoon after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 71.
Born in Arkansas, Helm cut his musical teeth in the late 1950s with Ronnie Hawkins as a member of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks which enjoyed their greatest success as a bar band in and around Toronto. It was north of the border where Helm met Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson and they eventually joined the Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. In 1963, Helm and company parted ways with Hawkins and came to the attention of Bob Dylan. In 1965, the Hawks helped Dylan go electric with mixed results. These results prompted Helm to take a hiatus from music for two years and return to Arkansas.
However, Helm would eventually rejoin The Hawks which by this time was known simply as The Band. They resumed their collaboration with Dylan both on the road and did some recordings with him which eventually saw the light of day in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. In 1968, The Band found stardom of their own with the release of their debut album Music from Big Pink. Helm sang lead vocal on The Band’s first hit “The Weight”. His voice would take center stage on their eponymous second album which was released the following year on songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek”. Helm also sang lead vocal on “Ophelia”.
The Band broke up during Thanksgiving 1976 when they gave a final concert known as The Last Waltz which was subsequently released theatrically (directed by Martin Scorsese). Helm had an acrimonious relationship with Robertson over publishing, royalties and feeling that he, Manuel, Danko and Hudson weren’t given their due especially in The Last Waltz as detailed in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire. However, a few days ago, after being informed that Helm only had days to live Robertson visited him at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City.
The Band reunited in the 1980s and 1990s without Robertson. I had to chance to see Helm along with Danko and Hudson (Manuel committed suicide in 1986) perform at the Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1993. Danko passed away in 1999. Robertson and Hudson are the only original surviving members of The Band.
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 resulting in the loss of his singing voice. To help pay his medical bills, Helm staged a series of concerts at his barn in Woodstock, New York called Midnight Ramble which soon earn an enthusiastic following. Initially, Helm confined himself to drumming but gradually his singing voice came back resulting in an unexpected career resurgence in the final years of his life. Between 2007 and 2011, Helm released three Grammy winning albums Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt and the live Ramble at the Ryman.
Unfortunately, the cancer would return. However, Helm was out there performing almost to the very end even though he was obviously not well as indicated by this review of his March 13th concert in Milwaukee. Helm’s final concert took place exactly one month ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Helm postponed a concert appearance at the Hampton Beach Casino in New Hampshire on March 30th but rescheduled it for July 17th. Alas, Levon Helm and his band will not play that night nor any other. R.I.P.
UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that Helm’s last shows actually took place at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, New York on March 23rd and 24th, not the March 19th show in Ann Arbor as I had reported. I regret the error. With that, I’ll leave you with Helm singing “The Weight” at his very last concert.