Levon Helm Dies at 71 [Updated]

Photo: Ahron R. Foster

According to a post on his website, Levon Helm, singer and drummer for The Band, passed away at age 71 today (4/19):

Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. 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.

Yesterday (4/18) the music community expressed grief over the announcement that Helm was in the “final stages” of throat cancer. Helm’s wife and daughter gave the following statement:

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

Born in Arkansas in 1940, Helm joined up with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins’ band after finishing high school and the group moved to Canada. Along with Hawkins, he joined with fellow Band members Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson in backing up Bob Dylan for the icon’s mid-60s switch to rock music.

As the drummer and one of the lead singers for The Band, Helm’s talents propelled classic hits like “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and inspired a generation of roots-oriented musicians. The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Helm is the third member of the group to pass away, following Richard Manuel (in 1986) and Rick Danko (in 1999).

Helm has also appeared in a handful of movies, notably as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter, as well as in The Right Stuff, Shooter, Fire Down Below, and more. The Band also got its own film treatment when director Martin Scorcese documented the group’s 1976 farewell performance in The Last Waltz (see video below).

In the late ‘90s, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer and endured intense radiation treatments that left his vocal cords damaged. The sickness nearly ended his career, but he returned to the stage with his Midnight Ramble and eventually regained his singing ability. His 2007 album Dirt Farmer earned a Grammy Award for Traditional Folk Album, and he won Best Americana Album Grammy Awards for 2009’s Electric Dirt and 2011’s Ramble At the Ryman. Guest performers at Ramble concerts have included Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Kris Kristofferson, Norah Jones, and many more.

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