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Levon Helm dies at 71; drummer and singer with the Band

Levon Helm's Arkansas-hewn voice and imaginative drumming helped make the Band — first known as Bob Dylan's backup band — into one of the most esteemed groups in pop music history.

April 20, 2012|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Levon Helm is shown performing in 2009.
Levon Helm is shown performing in 2009. (Craig Ruttle / Associated…)

Levon Helm is most widely known for the songs he sang that found their way onto the pop charts during his long tenure as drummer and singer for the Band: "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Don't Do It," earthy and infectious conglomerations of gospel, country, blues, folk and rock music.

But the one that might crystallize his approach to music throughout his life was "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show," an ode to the kind of freewheeling gatherings in which the musician, who died of cancer Thursday at 71 in New York, thoroughly reveled.

When your arms are empty, got nowhere to go

Come on out and catch the show

There'll be saints and sinners you'll see losers and winners

All kinds of people you might want to know

That song appeared in 1970 on "Stage Fright," the third album by the rock group that miraculously emerged out of the shadow of serving for several years as Bob Dylan's backing band to achieve a reputation in its own right as one of the most esteemed groups in pop music history.

Helm's wife, Sandy, and daughter, Amy, posted a note on his website on Tuesday alerting fans and friends that he was in the final stages of cancer.

"Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration," the note said. "He has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage."

The Band's former guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, in a statement issued Wednesday, 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 had been diagnosed in 1998 with throat cancer, which threatened to end his singing career. He declined to undergo a recommended laryngectomy, which he believed was certain to terminate his ability to sing, opting for radiation treatment instead, which left him nearly unable to speak, much less to sing.

Even before he regained the use of his voice, Helm started holding regular jam sessions he called Midnight Rambles at his home studio in Woodstock, N.Y., an outlet he said was crucial to keeping his outlook positive while rehabilitating his voice.

That effort was slow and arduous — it was more than two years before he could speak above a whisper. The medical bills also nearly caused him to lose his home. But thanks to the success of the Midnight Rambles series, eventually he clawed his way out of physical and financial debilitation to enjoy a latter-day career resurgence that yielded three Grammy Awards for his post-illness recordings "Dirt Farmer," "Electric Dirt" and "Ramble at the Ryman."

Mark Lavon Helm was born May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Ark., according to his official website, although some sources have listed the year of his birth as 1942 or 1943.

He was the second of four children of Nell and Diamond Helm. His father was a cotton farmer who also enjoyed playing music. At 6, he experienced his first live music event, a performance by bluegrass music patriarch Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. "This really tattooed my brain," he recalled. "I've never forgotten it."

Helm talked to The Times in 2008 of other early ways he was exposed to music: "I would go right into Chapel Silas' grocery story and Mr. Silas had one of the best jukeboxes in Phillips County, and I would sit there and feed that jukebox and he would feed me, you know, bologna and cheese."

A 1955 show by Elvis Presley, before he became a national sensation, impressed Helm with the contributions the drums added to his sound, in that he'd seen Presley the previous year before drummer D.J. Fontana was accompanying him. He was further enamored of the drums when he saw Jerry Lee Lewis' band with drummer Jimmy Van Eaton.

Still a teenager, he joined the backup band for fellow Arkansas singer Ronnie Hawkins.

"It was five people that were put in that sink-or-swim place," he said in 2002. "Thank God, we swam."

Helm was the only American in the Hawks, which included four Canadians: songwriter and guitarist Robertson, guitarist-keyboardist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. For a time after they broke with Hawkins they continued as Levon and the Hawks, acknowledging his role as the primary singer.

Bob Dylan heard and recruited the Hawks to be his band in 1965, a pivotal time in his explosive career as he broadened his sound from the traditional folk-rooted acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica sound of his earliest recordings to incorporate the visceral power of electric instrumentation that was at the heart of rock.

Dylan and the Hawks were booed by audiences in the U.S. and England when Dylan toured in the mid-1960s, folk purists arguing that he had betrayed his roots in the music of Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Pete Seeger and other folk artists.

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