These public deaths always seem to happen in threes, but seemingly not THIS fast. Earlier today news broke that Dark Shadows actor Jonathan Frid had died, while TV legend Dick Clark passed away yesterday. Unfortunately, Levon Helm, one of the key figures of The Band and who had been battling throat cancer, died today at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City at the age of 71, less than a month before his birthday. Helm had been diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s, undergoing radiation treatment that damaged his voice.
Helm, who was the drummer for The Band and also sometimes lead singer, is best known for his deeply soulful and country twinged vocals on radio staples as “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Band, while never reaching massive success in terms of sales, was a critical and cult favorite of many to this day, and Helm was one of the fan favorites in the group.
He also had a varied solo career, winning multiple Grammy Awards for his solo records, and was beloved in the music community. Friends, people in the music community, and family alike expressed condolences and well wishes as this week as Helm’s advanced illness became public after his family revealed that the musician was in the final stages of cancer. Now an outpouring of the same is starting a ripple effect as well now that Helm has passed on.
Born in the small town of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, Helm grew up listening to Bluegrass artists such as Bill Monroe and absorbed like a sponge all that that style of music and other genres such as country, blues, bluegrass, gospel, pop, Cajun, and Rock and Roll had to offer. Also skilled on guitar, mandolin, and bass, Helm settled on the drums and joined the Hawks in the 1950s, who backed Ronnie Hawkins, an early rockabilly star. They severed ties with Hawkins a few years later and by the 1960s, Helm’s group (along with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel) became known as The Band, where they backed Bob Dylan for awhile before branching off on their own. The Band then released a few albums and become one of the most critically lauded bands of all time, gaining a spot in the controversial Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. They broke up in celebrated fashion in 1976, and the final concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, California was documented by director Martin Scorsese, resulting in one of music’s greatest films of all time, The Last Waltz, released in 1978.
In Helms’ later years he was certainly busy, as he rejoined a Robbie Robertson-less incarnation of The Band and they released three albums in the 1990s. And he never had a shortage of musicians to play with, even up until several weeks ago, Helm had showcases a series of informal weekly concerts at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. called “The Midnight Rambles” attracting artists as diverse as Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris.
Notably, the Elton John song “Levon” the title character is named for Helm, as John was a big fan of The Band. John also named his son Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
Once again, and all too rapid, the iris on the entertainment world closes every more slightly, as we lament the passing of another true great, Levon Helm.
A message on Helm’s official website 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.
RIP Levon Helm
May 26, 1940 – April 19, 2012
Visit YouTube to see The Band perform “The Night they Drove old Dixie Down” from The Last Waltz concert.
[Source: Backstage OL]