“Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer,” read a statement posted on Helm’s website on Tuesday. “Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.”
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s. He underwent radiation treatment which greatly damaged his voice, but Helm didn’t allow it to deter him from continuing to make music and touring, including hosting “Midnight Ramble” events at his barn in Woodstock, New York. His recent studio efforts, Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009), both earned him GRAMMY Awards.
The Arkansas-born Helm began his music career after high school by joining Ronnie Hawkins’ band The Hawks. He later recruited guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson into the fold.
When Bob Dylan recruited The Hawks as his backing band in the mid 1960s, Helm left the music business for two years before being asked to rejoin them. During the years that followed, Helm would became well-known for his deeply soulful, country-accented voice and his creative drumming style featured on notable recordings from The Band, including “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Ophelia” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Here’s a clip of Helm singing “The Weight” with The Band (and the Staple Singers), taken from Martin Scorsese’s famous concert film of their (supposedly) final show in San Francisco, The Last Waltz.
Helm also earned his chops as an actor. He played Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter opposite Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones, as well as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Shooter, Smooth Talk, and The Right Stuff, among other films.
Levon Helm is survived by his wife Sandy and daughter Amy, a fellow musician with whom he often performed.
– E.J. Judge, WCBS/New York