Levon Helm, former drummer for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group the Band, announced on Tuesday that he is in the final stages of a long-running battle with cancer. Helm, 71, whose signature Southern drawl helped make iconic songs such as “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” rock classics, was first diagnosed with cancer in 1998.
“Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey,” read a note from his daughter Amy and wife Sandy. “Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration … 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… ”
After his initial diagnosis with throat cancer, Helm struggled to regain his voice and pay spiraling medical bills. Though he initially lost his ability to sing, Helm continued to play drums, mandolin and harmonica alongside daughter Amy in a series of shows at his Woodstock, New York, studios called the Midnight Ramble. Since 2004, the shows have grown in legend, attracting everyone from Elvis Costello and Norah Jones to My Morning Jacket, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. The weekly concerts attracted sold-out audiences that not only helped pay the bills, but also kick-started Helm’s recording career and produced the back-to-back Grammy-winning albums Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt and Ramble at the Ryman.
Born on May 26, 1940, Helm grew up in a musical home and was plucked by rocker Ronnie Hawkins to join his band in 1957. It was during his stint with Hawkins that he was united with four other musicians who would make up the core of the Band: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson. They eventually split with Hawkins and in 1965 hooked up with Bob Dylan to help the folk icon transition into an electric sound.
The Band went on to release a string of rock classics and broke up in 1976 after an all-star Thanksgiving concert at the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco that was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as “The Last Waltz.”