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Levon Helm, 71, Dies After Long Battle With Cancer

Levon Helm photo by Ahron R. Foster.

Levon Helm, legendary drummer for The Band, died Thursday, April 19 from throat cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, reports The Tennessean. His daughter Amy and wife Sandy issued a statement through his website on Tuesday afternoon, thanking fans for their support and asking for prayers as Levon entered the final stages of his battle with cancer.

“Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration,” they wrote. “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… We appreciate all the love and support and concern.”

Born May 26, 1940 in Elaina, Arkansas, Levon started working with rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s, moved to Toronto, and recruited Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson to form a backing group known as The Hawks. They toured with Ronnie and later went on to become Bob Dylan’s backing band.

Levon left the group to work on an oil rig but rejoined his band mates and along with Bob Dylan, they settled near West Saugerties, New York, writing and recording music.  The band landed a recording contract of their own and known as The Band, released 10 albums from 1968 to 1998. Two influential albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, and songs like “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” earned The Band a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and a lifetime achievement award at the GRAMMYs in 2008.

The Band broke up in 1976 when Levon became estranged from Robbie Robertson, partly over disputed songwriting credits. Their all-star farewell concert was chronicled by filmmaker Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and more participating. The band regrouped in 1983 without Robbie but called it quits for good in 1999 following the deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.

Levon had a successful side career as an actor, appearing in more than a dozen films between 1980 and 2008, including the role as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter opposite Sissy Spacek. He was inspired by and worked with a number of country music stars. Conway Twitty was an early supporter of Levon’s and Emmylou Harris worked with The Band on The Last Waltz and the Jesse James concept album. He released American Son in 1980 which was recorded in Nashville and included several Nashville musicians including Hargus “Pig” Robbins.

He continued his relationship with Music City, working with the Americana Music Association and in the studio and inviting Nashville artists to his Midnight Ramble concert series, which took place at his barn-like studio next to his home in Woodstock, New York. He received the Americana Artist of the Year Award at the 2008 Americana Honors & Awards.

Even after being diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s, Levon continued to make music. His tenor voice became raspy from radiation treatments, but he kept recording and staging his Midnight Ramble concerts, which he said at the time helped raise money for his medical bills. The last three albums he was a part of – 2007’s Dirt Farmer, 2009’s Electric Dirt and 2011’s live Ramble at the Ryman – each won GRAMMYs.

Following Levon’s passing on Thursday, his website was updated once more with a landing page containing a photo and message. “Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon,” the statement read. “He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.”


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