ALBANY, New York -- With songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” The Band fused rock, blues, folk and gospel to create a sound that seemed as authentically American as a Mathew Brady photograph or a Mark Twain short story.
In truth, the group had only one American—Levon Helm.
Helm, the drummer and singer who brought an urgent beat and a genuine Arkansas twang to some of The Band’s best-known songs and helped turn a bunch of musicians known mostly as Bob Dylan’s backup group into one of rock’s most legendary acts, has died. He was 71.
Helm, who was found to have throat cancer in 1998, died Thursday afternoon, according to his website. On Tuesday, a message on the site said he was in the final stages of cancer.
Helm and his bandmates—Canadians Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel—were musical virtuosos who returned to the roots of American music in the late 1960s as other rockers veered into psychedelia, heavy metal and jams. The group’s 1968 debut, “Music From the Big Pink,” and its follow-up, “The Band,” remain landmark albums of the era, and songs such as “The Weight,” “Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek” have become rock standards.
Early on, The Band backed Dylan on his sensational and controversial electric tours of 1965-66 and collaborated with him on the legendary “Basement Tapes,” which produced “I Shall Be Released,” “Tears of Rage” and many other favorites.
The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Helm was just out of high school when he joined rocker Ronnie Hawkins for a tour of Canada in 1957 as the drummer for the Hawks. That band eventually recruited a group of Canadian musicians who, along with Helm, spent grueling years touring rough bars in Canada and the South.
They would split from Hawkins, hook up with Dylan and eventually call themselves The Band—because, as they explained many times, that’s what everyone called them anyway.
In some ways, The Band was the closest this country ever came to the camaraderie and achievement of the Beatles. Each of the five members brought special talents that through years of touring, recording and living together blended into a unique sound.
The tall, lanky Robertson was an expert blues-rock guitarist and the group’s best lyricist, his songs inspired in part by Dylan and by the stories Helm would tell him of the South. The baby-faced Danko was a fluid bassist, an accomplished singer and occasional writer. The bearish Hudson was a virtuoso and eccentric who could seemingly master any instrument, especially keyboards, while the sad-eyed Manuel’s haunting falsetto on “Whispering Pines,” “Tears of Rage” and others led Helm to call him the group’s lead singer.
But for many Band admirers, that honor belonged to the short, feisty Helm, whose authoritative twang once was likened to a town crier calling a meeting to order. He not only sang “Dixie Down,” he inhabited it, becoming the Confederate Virgil Caine, “hungry, just barely alive,” his brother killed by the Yankees, the South itself in ruins. It was the kind of heartbreaking, complicated story and performance that had even Northerners rooting for the proud and desperate Virgil.
“The Weight” and many other songs were true collaborations: Helm’s voice was at the bottom, Danko’s in the middle and Manuel on top. Helm—the group’s musical leader on stage—played drums loose-limbed and funky, shoulders hunched and head to the side when he sang.
But the group, especially Manuel, struggled with drugs and alcohol. While Danko and Manuel shared songwriting credits in the early years, Robertson was essentially the lone writer for the last few albums. By the middle of the decade, Robertson, especially, was burned out and wanted to get off the road.
They bid farewell to live shows with a bang with the famous “Last Waltz” concert in 1976. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were among the stars who played the show in San Francisco, filmed by Martin Scorsese for a movie of the same name, released in 1978.
“The Last Waltz” is regarded by many as the greatest of concert films, but it also helped lead to a bitter split between Robertson and Helm, once the best of friends.
Robertson became close to Scorsese during the production, and Helm believed the movie was structured to make Robertson the leader and advance his own movie career. They rarely spoke after, despite efforts by Hawkins and others to intervene.
While Helm would accuse Robertson of being on a star trip, Helm, ironically, was the more successful actor, with acclaimed roles in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Right Stuff” and other films. And no one who watched “The Last Waltz” could forget Helm’s performance of “Dixie Down,” shot mostly in closeup, his face squeezed with emotion.
In his memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” Helm said some hard feelings about Robertson also included his getting songwriting credits on Band songs that other members considered group efforts. Robertson would deny the allegations. On his Facebook page this week, he revealed that he had been devastated to learn of Helm’s illness and visited him in the hospital.
“I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together,” Robertson wrote.
Without Robertson, The Band reunited in the 1980s but never approached its early success. Manuel hanged himself in a Winter Park, Fla., hotel room in 1986. Danko died in his home near Woodstock in 1999, a day after his 56th birthday.
Highlights from the ‘90s did include playing at a Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992 and a collaboration among Helm, Danko and Keith Richards on the rocker “Deuce and a Quarter.”
While Helm’s illness reduced his voice to something close to a whisper, it did not end his musical career. Beset by debt, in 2004 he began a series of free-wheeling late night shows in his barn in Woodstock that were patterned after medicine shows from his youth. Any night of the bi-weekly Midnight Rambles could feature Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello or his daughter Amy on vocals and violin.
He recorded “Dirt Farmer” in 2007, which was followed by “Electric Dirt” in 2009. Both albums won Grammys. He won another this year for “Ramble at the Ryman.”
Original members of The Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.