Levon Helm Dead: Drummer for The Band Dies at 71 After Long Battle With Cancer
Levon Helm, the enigmatic drummer and baritone vocalist behind The Band has died at the age of 71 after a lengthy battle with cancer, the Times-Herald Record reports. Helm had been hospitalized at New York’s Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center.
“We lost Levon at 1:30 today surrounded by friends and family and his musicians have visited him,” Larry Campbell, Helm’s guitarist and band leader, told the newspaper. “As sad as this was, it was very peaceful.”
After last weekend’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, speculation about Helm’s health grew after former Band guitarist Robbie Robertson wished “love and prayers” to the drummer. The two had a falling out in the late ’70s after the group broke up.
On Tuesday evening, Helm’s family posted a heartfelt message online asking for fans to send their support to the dying drummer. Since then, thousands of people have posted tributes and kind words about Helm.
“Thank you, all, for the outpouring of kindness and love. I know Levon is feeling it and that love will help guide him through this final journey. Thank you for your respect for his, Sandy’s and Amy’s privacy. YOU are truly people with class and Levon would think the world of you,” Helm’s manager Barbara O’Brien told fans on Facebook.
Born and raised in Arkansas, Helm had a distinctly Southern voice that graced some The Band’s greatest hits, including “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” In the ’50s, he joined Ronnie Hawkins’ band, which would later include Robertson, bassist Rick Danko and keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. Known as the Hawks, the sidemen would eventually get hired to back up Bob Dylan. Though Helm briefly quit the group, he returned and the musicians, sans Dylan, broke out on their own as The Band.
After a slew of critically acclaimed albums, including their 1968 debut Music From the Big Pink and their 1969 self-titled LP, The Band decided to retire from the road and held a star-studded farewell concert that was released as an album and Martin Scorsese-directed film called “The Last Waltz.” The Band recorded Islands, their final album with the original lineup, following the concert.
Helm released four solo albums, beginning with 1977’s Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars, before the Band reunited without Robertson. Helm was later extremely critical of Robertson in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire — Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, accusing the guitarist of cheating the rest of the group out of songwriting credits and purposely getting too much of the spotlight in “The Last Waltz.”
The Band continued on despite Richard Manuel’s suicide in 1986, releasing three more albums before breaking up for good after Rick Danko’s death in 1999. They were also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, with Helm being the only member not to attend the service. In recent years, Helm was a prolific solo artist, beginning with 2007’s Grammy-winning albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt.
Helm also battled health problems for years. He had been a heavy smoker for many years and in 1998 began treatment for throat cancer. The disease reduced his voice to barely a whisper and took many years to become stronger.
“I think there’s that secret little spot back there in your mind where you know something’s wrong, but you don’t want to admit it,” Helm told the Albany Times Union in 2000 [via Huffington Post]. “You put it off, you know. But my family and friends made me go to the doctor, and that’s when you start dealing with it.”
After quitting smoking and 25 rounds of chemotherapy, Helm’s health improved dramatically. But the disease flared up once again and claimed the singer’s life on Thursday, April 19. Just days prior to his passing, Robertson revealed that he had visited Helm in the hospital.
“I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together,” he said. “Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”
Helm is survived by his wife, Sandy, and daughter, Amy. Rest in peace, Levon.
Singer Levon Helm on His Cancer
Watch The Band Perform “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”