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Levon Helm Loses Cancer Battle at 71

Helm performs at the Fillmore East in 1969 / Photo by Elliott Landy/Redferns

Two days after his wife and daughter announced that he was in “the final stages” of his long bout with cancer, Levon Helm, drummer and singer for the Band, died in New York City, a few weeks shy of his 72nd birthday.

Born in Arkansas as Mark Lavon Helm, he was the lone non-Canadian in rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band the Hawks, who served as Bob Dylan back-up band when he dared to “go electric” in 1965. The ensuing uproar and bickering among Dylan’s folk-purist devotees, which remains unlike anything else in pop history, was too much for Helm, and he eventually ceded his seat behind the drums. But it was just the beginning of a long relationship between Dylan and the Band — soon after, Helm rejoined, and the handy generic moniker became official). After Dylan was in a motorcycle crash in 1966 (or was he?), he holed up in Woodstock, New York, and his recordings from that time with the Band eventually surfaced on 1975’s The Basement Tapes. But it was 1968’s Music From Big Pink, named for the Band’s house in Woodstock, that removed them from Dylan’s considerable shadow forever. As the unmistakable voice carrying songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” Helm gave the ’60s a signature rasp of ragged desperation and defiance.

What followed in the next eight years was as prolific a streak as any American rock band in history — six studio albums, plus backing Dylan on Self-Portrait and Planet Waves and all conceivable tour stops in between. Their star-studded final show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater, The Last Waltz, on Thanksgiving night, 1976, was memorialized in Martin Scorsese’s legendary documentary. The Band released a contractual-obligation album of outtakes the next year and reformed in 1983 without guitarist Robbie Robertson, making Helm the de facto leader, though he didn’t attend the Band’s 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame due to lingering unpleasantness with Robertson. Various iterations of the group existed until bassist Rick Danko’s death in 1999, not long after Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer.

Helm had a rebirth of recording and touring fairly after his tumor was removed, while hootenannies called the Midnight Ramble, held frequently over the past decade at his home studio in Woodstock, attracted esteemed guests like Elvis Costello and Ralph Stanley. Dirt Farmer, his first solo album since 1982, was released in 2007, followed two years later by Electric Dirt — both won Grammys — while a documentary on Helm called Ain’t In It For My Health was released in 2010.

Helm’s naturally gruff Arkansas charm landed him the role of Loretta Lynn’s father Ted Webb in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, the first of about 15 character-actor roles over three decades, including the narrator in The Right Stuff.

Helm passed away at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and, according to his website, was surrounded by family, friends, and bandmates.