The Band's Levon Helm dies of throat cancer
Published Thursday, April 19, 2012 10:28PM EDT
Levon Helm, the singing drummer that gave The Band its Southern swagger, died on Thursday from throat cancer. He was 71.
While the musician sang many of The Band's most beloved songs, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek," he did more than perform with the group.
In fact, it was Helm's childhood growing up on a cotton farm in Arkansas that gave the group its authenticity as a quintessentially American creation.
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 and underwent invasive treatments that ravaged his vocal chords.
While the disease left his trademarked tenor ragged in recent years, Helm still toured extensively with his new bands and won praise for his drumming, which married roots-inspired rhythms with sensibilities from rhythm-and-blues and funk.
Earlier this week, Helm's family released a public statement saying that the musician was in the final stages of his battle with cancer.
Helm died on Thursday afternoon, according to a message posted on his website.
Helm was the lone American in The Band, and he lived in Toronto for several years as he and his youthful bandmates honed their musical skills on the Yonge Street strip and in bars and taverns across southern Ontario.
At the time, Helm and his Canadian bandmates –- Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, and late members Richard Manuel and Rick Danko –- were billed as The Hawks, and they backed up American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins during hundreds of shows.
In fact, it was Helm who first made contact with Hawkins, joining him on a tour in the U.S. that took them northward in 1957.
By the 1960s, however, the band had outgrown Hawkins' basic rock sound, and his gruelling touring schedule had begun to wear on the young members.
Shortly after splitting with Hawkins and rebranding themselves as The Band, Bob Dylan asked the group to back him up during his tumultuous transformation from folk artist to electric rock star in 1965 and 1966.
Though Helm departed his bandmates and returned to the U.S. during the Dylan era, he would later rejoin them in rural New York State, where The Band began crafting their own special brew of folk, Americana and psychedelia on "Music from Big Pink" and the group's eponymous follow-up.
Those early records, written and rehearsed largely at The Band's clubhouse in Woodstock, N.Y., caused an immediate sensation in the music world and led to comparisons to The Beatles.
Indeed, in many ways, The Band's story echoed that of their counterparts from Liverpool: both formed at a young age, both paid their dues during years of gritty club touring, and both forever changed the musical landscape with their writing and their brave sonic experimentation.
While Robbie Robertson was an expert blues guitarist who wrote much of the group's material, his vocals were often seen by critics as lacking. Without doubt, it was Helm's powerful vocals that made Robertson's tales come to life, particularly in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which recounts a Civil War tale from the perspective of a Southern farmer.
Likewise, on "Cripple Creek," it's Helm's playful vocals and his funky drum beat that drive the tune.
But as The Band pushed musical boundaries and became a headlining act at Woodstock, success began to tear them apart.
In Helm's autobiography "This Wheel's On Fire," he wrote that The Band lost their creative and collaborative spirit in the 1970s as money and the music business strained their relationship.
By the time the group released 1970's "Stage Fright," Robertson was listed as the primary writer –- a role that had been shared by the other members on the first two records.
The group continued to tour and make records in the 1970s, their career culminated in 1976 with the "The Last Waltz," which was also a motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese.
Recorded in San Francisco, "Waltz" featured the group's friends and acolytes, like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Hawkins, Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond.
While critics and fans have hailed "Waltz" as one of the greatest-ever live albums, Helm would later talk about his dissatisfaction with the project and in particular, Robertson, who he accused of singing into a dead microphone for the sake of showmanship.
Despite his bitterness with the end of the group, Helm would also reassemble The Band for a reunion tour –- without Robertson –- in the 1980s.
Though hard-core fans flocked to see their musical heroes, the group was relegated to small venues and clubs, with the members struggling with drugs and alcohol.
Manuel became the first casualty, and hung himself in a Florida bathroom during a 1986 tour.
Still, Helm continued touring regularly and he launched a successful acting career and took roles in "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "The Right Stuff."
In 1999, Danko became the second Band member to die, and passed away in his sleep at his home in Upstate New York. The death, deemed to be the result of heart failure, was linked to drug use.
Robertson has continued to make music and recently released a solo album.
Speaking of the bitterness between himself and Helm, Robertson wrote on his Facebook page this week that he had visited his old band mate in hospital.
Said Robertson: "I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together."