Levon Helm, Former Drummer For The Band, Dies at 71

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Levon Helm performs June 26, 2011, at the Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, Mass. (Photo by Eric R. Danton)

Levon Helm, drummer for the Band and a solo artist, died Thursday afternoon after a long battle with cancer, his friend and bandmate Larry Campbell told the Hudson Valley newspaper the Times Herald-Record. Helm was 71.

The singer has canceled two scheduled performances in Northampton in recent months, including one that had been slated for Friday, April 20. The reason why became clear earlier this week, when Helm’s family revealed he was in the final stages of cancer, with which he was first diagnosed in the late ’90s.

A letter posted on the front page of his website read:

Dear Friends,

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.

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…

We appreciate all the love and support and concern.

From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy

After graduating from high school in the late 1950s, Helm, 71, an Arkansas native, backed Canadian singer Ronnie Hawkins in a band that came to include Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. In 1963, they split from Hawkins and formed what became the Band, one of the most essential groups of the late ’60s.

The original incarnation of the Band came to an end in 1976 with a concert documented in the 1978 movie and soundtrack album “The Last Waltz,” though Helm participated in the group’s revival in the ’90s. He also released a considerable assortment of solo albums over the years, including the Grammy-winning releases “Dirt Farmer” in 2007 (reviewed here) and “Electric Dirt” in 2009; and held “Rambles” in the barn on his property in upstate New York, which featured high-profile guest musicians spanning a wide swath of music, including Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Hubert Sumlin, Phil Lesh and Norah Jones.

Helm also appeared in a dozen movies, with roles in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Right Stuff” and “Feeling Minnesota,” among others.

I only managed to see him perform once, last summer at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, where his set was like a guided tour of American folk, country and blues music, and hearing him and his band (and Wilco) close their set with “I Shall Be Released” and “The Weight” was perfect, and deeply moving.

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16 thoughts on “Levon Helm, Former Drummer For The Band, Dies at 71

  1. jim barber

    Dear Levon,
    I became a fan in the 1960’s when I started high school(1965).I will always be a fan.Bless you & your family.My prayers are with you all.Thank you for so many years of beautiful music.

  2. Reverend Ron

    Dear Mr. Helm,Peace to you and your family and also your fans.Thank you for all of your work and kindness.

  3. LW

    I have carried your music with me since the early 70’s, and listen to your beautiful sounds virtually every week. Your recorded music and live performances have brought me much joy over many, many years. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us all, and God bless you and your family during this difficult time.

  4. Richard

    I was listening to bits and pieces of 1972’s “Rock of Ages” last night.

    The shame is The Band never quite fulfilled their potential as the standard bearers of roots music. What they did do was amazing from 1967s “Basement Tapes” to “The Last Waltz” a decade later.

    “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was always odd to my young Northern ears. Who would write or sing a song from the southern perspective in the Civil Rights era? King Harvest (has come) and other folksy, agrarian-themed songs were not the stuff of pop music in 1969. It was the era where rock, blues, country, bluesgrass and folk were closely intertwined. Lovely stuff.

    Time to dig out out “Northern Lights, Southern Cross” and enjoy the end of en era. With Danko and Manuel already dead that pretty much ends any Band reunion speculation.

    1. Eric R. Danton Post author

      If you haven’t already, it’s worth reading Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train” for a deep rock-nerd analysis of the Band’s music (at least through 1975, when the book came out). Explains some of the questions you’ve raised.

    2. Franklin

      ““The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was always odd to my young Northern ears. Who would write or sing a song from the southern perspective in the Civil Rights era?”

      Try and look at it from the perspective of those poor, southern boys who saw everything they loved get raped, burned and killed by the invading Union army. Revisionist history is a hell of a thing, Richard.

  5. Bob Kagan

    My wife and I were fortunate to attend four of his Midnight Rambles at his Woodstock home. His musicianship and integrity will be sorely missed.

    Also, his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, is wonderful.

  6. AMG

    God bless you and your family. Thank you for being part of the soundtrack of my and many, many other people’s lives.

  7. greatseaturtle

    Love you Levon! You made so much great music and shared it with so many people. You are a legend! So it goes…

  8. Tommy Mambo

    There has never been another like Levon. Through his wonderful music, he brought so much joy to so many. The only American in the Canadian quintet, he gave The Band deep roots in the rich Southern soil. He was truly a rock and roll original who emerged at a time when songs and musicianship were what mattered most…Not to make this a referendum on the current state of the music business, but I am sure glad The Band came along when they did, because in this day of “American Idol” disposable pop heroes, they would never have seen the light of day.

  9. Rick

    This Sunday I’ll be doing a 90 min tribute to Levon on my radio show The Psychedelicatessen on WESU-FM 88.1FM in Middletown. http://www.wesufm.org to get the stream if you’re out of our broadcast area.

    We met Levon many years ago at Riverside Park after The Band played at the old speedway. He was the consummate Southern Gentleman. If there’s a Rock n Roll heaven, they just got one hell of a drummer. Rest in Peace Brother!

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