Music News

R.I.P. Levon Helm, 5/26/40 - 4/19/12

See Also: At the Helm - A throat cancer survivor, the Band's Levon Helm can't sing anymore -- but the beat goes on

Levon Helm, iconic drummer and singer extraordinaire of the Band, died yesterday at the age of 71, after a long and strenuous battle with throat cancer. Helm's imaginative drumming and earthy, soulful vocals helped the Band grow from Bob Dylan's backup band to one of the most legendary rock bands of our time.

Born in Arkansas in 1940, Helm grew up listening to rock greats like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard, but he was inspired to start playing the drums after he saw Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer, Jimmy Van Eaton, live in concert. At twenty, Levon started playing in the backing band of Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly sensation whose repertoire included hits like "Who Do You Love" and "Suzie Q." This gig lead him to future Band members Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson.

Although the Band came to fame in the early '60s, the group's sound decidedly countered the more typical and trending psychedelic theme that was defining the music scene at the time. The Band's sound was homegrown, steeped in Americana roots, traditional folk and country, gospel, and rock. Eventually, the act signed to Capitol Records and released two revered albums, Music From Big Pink in 1968, which included the famed song "The Weight," and The Band in 1969.

Helm and Robertson couldn't have been a better match. Robertson wrote most of the songs for the band, and Helm's rustic yet gritty vocals lent an extraordinary simplicity to the songs, illuminating them from within and bringing them to life.

By the late '60s and early '70s, the Band had become one of the most influential bands of the time. In 1976, for reasons mostly unknown, Robertson pressured the band to break up, an event that would culminate in one final show, "The Last Waltz," which would include performances by friends of the Band. Filmed by Martin Scorsese and featuring icons like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison, The Last Waltz would be celebrated for many future generations.

Helm was against the dissolution of the group, but he moved on to record several solo albums and side projects, as well as play the role of Loretta Lynn's father in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter. In the early '80s, Helm gave the Band another shot with it's remaining members, rekindling their musical chemistry and recording several more albums. In 2007, after the band's final breakup, as well as their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he went on to record Dirt Farmer, an incredibly stripped-down folk/roots album.

Although Levon continued to sing and perform for as long as possible, on Tuesday, Levon's wife and daughter posted a note on his website letting fans know he was in the final stages of cancer: "Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration -- 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."

-- Samantha Alviani

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.

Latest Stories