Levon Helm, key member of The Band, dies at 71
FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2009 file photo, Levon Helm performs with the Levon Helm band during the Heroes of Woodstock concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, N.Y. Helm, who was in the final stages of his battle with cancer, died Thursday, April 19, 2012 in New York. He was 71. He was a key member of The Band and lent his distinctive Southern voice to classics like "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — 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 of complications from cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said Lucy Sabini of Vanguard Records. On Tuesday, a message on his website 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 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.
Dylan said on his website Thursday: "He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about."
Hudson said on his website that he was "terribly sad."
"Thank you for 50 years of friendship and music," he posted. "No more sorrows, no more troubles, no more pain. He went peacefully to that beautiful marvelous wonderful place. ... Levon, I'm proud of you."
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.