Levon Helm. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
By Jerry Shriver, USA TODAY
Levon Helm came to fame in a rootsy rock group that featured three extraordinary voices. But you could always tell which was his: It was the sound of the lusty wildcat, the stern Southern preacher, the depleted Confederate soldier, the dirt farmer at the end of his day.
Helm, 71, who as a drummer backed a pair of legendary musicians and then became a star himself with The Band and as a solo artist, died today from throat cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
"Thank you, fans and music lovers, who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration," said his daughter, Amy, and wife, Sandy, in a statement released Tuesday before he died. "He has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage."
As a young man out of Elaine, Ark., in the early 1960s, Helm hooked up with fellow Arkansan and rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins (Who Do You Love?), moved to Toronto and recruited four Canadians to join the backing group: guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist/vocalist Rick Danko, pianist/vocalist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson.
Known as The Hawks, they toured with Hawkins, then split and eventually became Bob Dylan's backing band just as the folk king was embracing electric rock. Though Helm left the group to work on an oil rig for two years, he rejoined his mates, and they and Dylan settled near West Saugerties, N.Y., in the latter half of the '60s. Countering the psychedelic trend that dominated the fractured music scene, they wrote and recorded songs steeped in old-time country, soul, R&B, '50s rock, gospel, blues and folk ballads - with lyrics that spoke of an older America.
Levon Helm and the four Canadians got a recording contract of their own, and as The Band they released 10 studio albums from 1968 to 1998. In its heyday, the group appealed more to the rock intelligentsia than the masses, but on the strength of two highly influential albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, and timeless songs such as The Weight, Up On Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (Helm sang lead and drummed on all three), they earned enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys in 2008.
Singer Rosanne Cash, herself the daughter of another Arkansas icon, Johnny Cash, recalls singing The Weight with Helm at an Americana Music Association event a year or so ago: "My whole body was tingling throughout the song. I didn't want it to end. It was like going back in time to revisit some of the searing musical moments that made me want to become a musician. Levon was so sweet, so full of light. ... I'm heartbroken he has moved on to 'find a place where he can lay his head.' But I hope he found it."
The Band broke up in 1976 - Levon Helm had become estranged from Robertson. partly because of disputed songwriting credits - and filmmaker Martin Scorsese chronicled the group's all-star farewell concert in The Last Waltz film and soundtrack, with Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Hawkins, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and others participating.
At Saturday's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland, Robertson told the audience that "We all need to send out love and prayers to my Band mate Levon Helm."
The members regrouped without Robertson in 1983 but called it quits for good in 1999 after the deaths of Manuel and Danko.
Levon Helm used the first break to launch a side career: From 1980 to 2008, he acted in more than a dozen films, most notably as Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter opposite Sissy Spacek.
But he never strayed from music, even while he was battling throat cancer beginning in the late 1990s. His sturdy tenor voice had become raspy from radiation treatments, but he continued to record and during the past decade staged a series of popular Midnight Ramble concerts involving a variety of guest musicians at his barn-like studio next to his home in Woodstock, N.Y. Helm said at the time that the concerts raised money to pay his medical bills.
Of the more than a dozen solo and informal group albums that Levon Helm recorded, the final three, 2007's Dirt Farmer, 2009's Electric Dirt and 2011's live Ramble at the Ryman, each won Grammys. The award for Electric Dirt was the first to be given in the newly created Americana category - wholly appropriate, since Helm was first and foremost a man who swore by the mud below his feet.