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Thursday
Apr192012

The Band's Levon Helm Dead at Age 71

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty ImagesLevon Helm, the drummer and most recognizable vocalist of the influential rock group The Band, died April 19 of throat cancer in New York.  He was 71.  Helm's longtime guitarist, Larry Campbell, told Rolling Stone, "He passed away peacefully at 1:30 this afternoon surrounded by his friends and bandmates." Campbell tells Rolling Stone, "All his friends were there, and it seemed like Levon was waiting for them. Ten minutes after they left we sat there and he just faded away. He did it with dignity."

A note on his Facebook page read, "Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon.  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."

With a soulful, weathered voice straight from the Arkansas cotton fields where he was raised, Helm contributed vocals to many of the group's best-known songs, including "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek."

While The Band was often celebrated for its mastery of the roots music of the American South, Helm was the only member of the group who actually hailed from the States.  Guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko and keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel were all Canadian. 

After years of honing their craft on the bar circuit under the moniker Levon and The Hawks, Helm and the others were hired as Bob Dylan's backing band.  In the late 1960s, under Dylan's mentorship, the outfit rechristened itself The Band and released its acclaimed debut album, Music from Big Pink, in 1968.  The group's earthy sounds quickly made an impact on many famous contemporary artists, including Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Elton John, whose 1971 hit "Levon" was named after Helm.

After recording six more studio efforts, The Band announced their breakup in 1976, and gave a star-studded farewell performance at San Francisco's Winterland.  The affair is documented in Martin Scorsese's classic concert film The Last Waltz, often called one of the greatest rock and roll films ever.

Helm put out a few solo releases in the late 1970s and early '80s, and in 1983, The Band re-formed without Robertson, with whom Helm maintained a fractious relationship.  The group continued to tour and record on and off until 1998, though Manuel committed suicide in 1986.  Danko died of drug-related heart failure in 1999, leaving only Helm, Robertson and Hudson from The Band's lineup.

In the late 1990s, Helm was stricken with throat cancer, which damaged his singing voice.  However, by the mid 2000s the musician had made a strong recovery, going on to release the Grammy Award-winning albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt in 2007 and 2009, respectively.

Also in recent years, Helm hosted a regular series of jam sessions, dubbed "The Midnight Ramble," at his home in Woodstock, New York, which attracted many big-name musical guests.  He also took a touring version of the concerts on the road.

Besides his music career, Helm had acting roles in several major films, including Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff, the latter of which he narrated.

Elton John issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly Thursday, saying, "When I heard The Band's Music from Big Pink, their music changed my life. And Levon was a big part of that band. Nigel Olson, my drummer, will tell you that every drummer that heard him was influenced by him. He was the greatest drummer and a wonderful singer and just a part of my life that was magical. They once flew down to see me in Philadelphia and I couldn’t believe it. They were one of the greatest bands of all time. They really changed the face of music when their records came out. I had no idea he was sick so I'm very dismayed and shocked that he died so quickly. But now my son has his name."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio