Levon Helm, key member of The Band, dies at 71

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - With songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” The Band fused rock, blues, folk and gospel to create a sound that seemed as authentically American as a Mathew Brady photograph or a Mark Twain short story.

In truth, the group had only one American _ Levon Helm.

Helm, the drummer and singer who brought an urgent beat and a genuine Arkansas twang to some of The Band’s best-known songs and helped turn a bunch of musicians known mostly as Bob Dylan’s backup group into one of rock’s most legendary acts, has died. He was 71.

Helm, who was found to have throat cancer in 1998, died Thursday afternoon of complications from cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said Lucy Sabini of Vanguard Records. On Tuesday, a message on his website said he was in the final stages of cancer.

Helm and his bandmates _ Canadians Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel _ were musical virtuosos who returned to the roots of American music in the late 1960s as other rockers veered into psychedelia, heavy metal and jams. The group’s 1968 debut, “Music From the Big Pink,” and its follow-up, “The Band,” remain landmark albums of the era, and songs such as “The Weight,” “Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek” have become rock standards.

Early on, The Band backed Dylan on his sensational and controversial electric tours of 1965-66 and collaborated with him on the legendary “Basement Tapes,” which produced “I Shall Be Released,” “Tears of Rage” and many other favorites.

Dylan said on his website Thursday: “He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about.”

Hudson said on his website that he was “terribly sad.”

“Thank you for 50 years of friendship and music,” he posted. “No more sorrows, no more troubles, no more pain. He went peacefully to that beautiful marvelous wonderful place. … Levon, I’m proud of you.”

The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Helm was just out of high school when he joined rocker Ronnie Hawkins for a tour of Canada in 1957 as the drummer for the Hawks. That band eventually recruited a group of Canadian musicians who, along with Helm, spent grueling years touring rough bars in Canada and the South.

They would split from Hawkins, hook up with Dylan and eventually call themselves The Band _ because, as they explained many times, that’s what everyone called them anyway.

In some ways, The Band was the closest this country ever came to the camaraderie and achievement of the Beatles. Each of the five members brought special talents that through years of touring, recording and living together blended into a unique sound.

The tall, lanky Robertson was an expert blues-rock guitarist and the group’s best lyricist, his songs inspired in part by Dylan and by the stories Helm would tell him of the South. The baby-faced Danko was a fluid bassist, an accomplished singer and occasional writer. The bearish Hudson was a virtuoso and eccentric who could seemingly master any instrument, especially keyboards, while the sad-eyed Manuel’s haunting falsetto on “Whispering Pines,” “Tears of Rage” and others led Helm to call him the group’s lead singer.

But for many Band admirers, that honor belonged to the short, feisty Helm, whose authoritative twang once was likened to a town crier calling a meeting to order. He not only sang “Dixie Down,” he inhabited it, becoming the Confederate Virgil Caine, “hungry, just barely alive,” his brother killed by the Yankees, the South itself in ruins. It was the kind of heartbreaking, complicated story and performance that had even Northerners rooting for the proud and desperate Virgil.

“The Weight” and many other songs were true collaborations: Helm’s voice was at the bottom, Danko’s in the middle and Manuel on top. Helm _ the group’s musical leader on stage _ played drums loose-limbed and funky, shoulders hunched and head to the side when he sang.

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