RIP Levon Helm: The Band Drummer And Americana Icon Dies At 71

Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born icon of Americana music, passed away Thursday afternoon after a long battle with throat cancer, his family said on Helm's Web site.

"He has loved nothing more than to play, to fill up the room with music, lay down the back beat, and make people dance," Helm's family posted a few days before his death. "He did it every time he took the stage."

Helm, who was 71, was the only American and only Southerner in the Band, the group of otherwise Canadian musicians who fused rock and roll with other forms of American folk music to arrive at a distinctive sound that became the wellspring of alternative country and Americana. In the early '60s, he moved to Toronto with popular rockabilly singer Ronnie "The Hawk" Hawkins' as drummer in his fellow Arkansas native's group the Hawks.

He met the other Band members - Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel - when they gradually joined the Hawks and then Hawkins left himself, leaving Helm to often sing lead. The group eventually became known as the Band, and songs such as "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Weight" and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" were sometimes described as belonging to a bygone America that never actually existed but should have.

The Band also served as Bob Dylan's backup group on several occasions, including an album recorded in 1967 but was not released until 1975 as The Basement Tapes. The group also backed Dylan on his 1974 tour, which was recorded for the live album Before the Flood. An early recording of Dylan and the group when they were still known as the Hawks, recorded at London's Royal Albert Hall in May 1966, was bootlegged for years and years until it was finally officially released in 1998 as Bob Dylan Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert.

Helm is prominently featured behind Dylan, Hawkins, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John and many others in the Band's famous final concert at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom Thanksgiving night 1976, which director Martin Scorsese filmed for the 1978 movie The Last Waltz.

His album Dirt Farmer won a Grammy in 2007 for Best Traditional Folk Album, and follow-up Electric Dirt (2009) won for Best Americana Album. His 2010 live album Ramble at the Ryman won the same category last year.

Helm also acted in several films, playing Loretta Lynn's (Sissy Spacek) father in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter, and wrote the memoir This Wheel's On Fire, which is considered to be one of the best books about the music business in the '60s and '70s, in 1993.

The one and only time Rocks Off got to see Helm live was at the 2009 Austin City Limits Music Festival, while it was pouring rain. He had been ordered not to sing by his doctor, and although people like daughter Amy and Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell did most of the vocals, Helm could not contain himself.

"Rocks Off glanced up at the stage more than once and caught the spry Helm singing along," we wrote that October. "The rest of the time, the spry, rail-thin Arkansan was grinning from ear to ear as he whacked his drums like a 25-year-old."

Austin roots-rockers and frequent Houston visitors the Gourds recorded their most recent album, last year's Old Mad Joy, at Helm's studio near Woodstock in upstate New York, where the drummer hosted the "Midnight Ramble" open jam sessions for years.

The best part of recording the album, Gourds bassist and singer Jimmy Smith told Rocks Off's William Michael Smith last July, was "seeing Levon's grinning face while we were cutting."

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray