After fighting a long battle with cancer, Levon Helm, former drummer for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group [artist id=”2370″]The Band[/artist] died Thursday (April 19). He was 71.
“Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon,” a statement on his website reads. “He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.”
Born in Elaine, Arkansas, on May 26, 1940, Helm’s signature Southern drawl is featured on some of the Band’s most iconic songs, from “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek” to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Helm was first diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 and has struggled with his voice since. He initially lost his ability to sing entirely, but continued to play drums, mandolin and harmonica. Radiation left him with little more than a raspy whisper, but Helm continued to try to sing, and by the time he recorded 2007’s Dirt Farmer he’d recovered 80 percent of his voice.
With his daughter Amy, he started a series of weekly concerts at his Woodstock, New York, studios called the “Midnight Ramble,” which grew from an idea Helm explained to Martin Scorsese while making “The Last Waltz,” the legendary documentary directed by Scorsese about the Band’s epic, all-star Thanksgiving farewell concert in 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.
The Midnight Ramble shows became very popular and attracted many of music’s most renowned stars, from Elvis Costello and Norah Jones to My Morning Jacket and Emmylou Harris. The shows’ success reignited Helm’s recording career in the early 2000s, leading him toward Grammy wins for his albums Dirt Farmer (2007), Electric Dirt (2009) and Ramble at the Ryman (2011).
Helm’s music career began when he joined the band of rocker Ronnie Hawkins in 1957. During his stint in Hawkins’ band, he met Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson and together they formed the core of the Band. After their split from Hawkins, the group became the backing band for Bob Dylan as the folk icon transitioned to an electric sound.
Helm, Manuel, Danko, Robertson and Hudson eventually earned a recording contract of their own, and as the Band released 10 studio albums, beginning with 1968’s Music From Big Pink. Though the Band broke up in 1976, they regrouped without Robertson in 1983 and continued recording through 1998.
Helm was also an actor, appearing in 12 films, most notably the 1980s Oscar-winning “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” in which he played Loretta Lynn’s (Sissy Spacek) father, and most recently the Mark Wahlberg-starring “Shooter.”