Levon Helm, Drummer for The Band, Dies at 71

Posted by at 4:05 pm on April 19, 2012

Levon Helm, the drummer and only American in The Band has died at age 71 (May 26, 1940 ~ April 19, 2012).

He was found to have throat cancer in 1998 and died from 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.

He was 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.

Those Canadians were Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel — they, along with Helm returned to the roots of American music in the late 1960s while others turned to psychedelia, heavy metal and what would be come punk in the 70s.

The group 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.

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.

The Band disbanded in 1976, A move called the Last Waltz directed by Martin Scorsese documented their last performances on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Last Waltz is hailed as one of the greatest concert films ever made, although it has been criticized for its focus on Robbie Robertson.

In 1983, the Band reformed and recommenced touring, though without Robertson. Several musicians, mostly from the band’s Ronnie Hawkins days, were recruited as touring personnel to replace Robertson and to fill out the group. The reunited Band was generally well-received, but found themselves playing in smaller venues than during the peak of their popularity.

On March 4, 1986, Manuel committed suicide, aged 42, in his Florida motel room while The Band was on tour. It was revealed later that he had suffered for many years from chronic alcoholism.

Helm, Danko and Hudson played in the 1989 version of Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band performing The Weight and Up On Cripple Creek.

The reformed group recorded the Jericho LP in 1993 with much of the songwriting being handled outside the group

In 1994 Robertson appeared with Danko and Hudson as The Band for the induction of The Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Helm, who has feuded with Robertson for years over accusations of stolen songwriting credits, did not attend.

Rick Danko died in his sleep at the age of 56 on December 10, 1999. Following his death, The Band broke up for good.

Helm’s performance career in the 2000s revolved mainly around the Midnight Ramble at his home and studio, “the Barn,” in Woodstock, New York. These concerts, featuring Helm and a variety of musical guests, allowed Helm to raise money for his medical bills.

The Band received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award on February 9, 2008 but there was no reunion of all three living members. In honor of the event, Helm held a Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, NY.

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