By Damian Fanelli
Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born multi-instrumentalist and vocalist whose voice graces several of The Band's signature songs, died 1:30 p.m. today in New York City after a 14-year battle with cancer.
Helm, who was 71, had been hospitalized at New York's Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center.
Helm's soulful, distinctly Southern baritone voice can be heard on The Band's "Up On Cripple Creek," "Atlantic City," "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and "The Weight."
His haunting, drawled delivery on The Band's 1969 single, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," had listeners thinking they were hearing an authentic relic of the Civil War -- even though the song was written by the group's Canadian guitarist, Robbie Robertson, more than 100 years after the fact.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked Helm at No. 91 on its list of The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
He was born Mark Lavon Helm on May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Arkansas, and raised in an Arkansas hamlet called Turkey Scratch (Lavon evolved into "Levon" over the years). Helm, whose parents were cotton farmers, learned how to play the guitar and other instruments at a young age, eventually drumming in his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters.
After graduating from high school, he joined Ronnie Hawkins' rockabilly band, The Hawks, who were popular in Southern -- and Canadian -- bars and clubs. The band worked constantly as Helm developed his signature loose, free-wheeling drumming style.
The Hawks moved to Toronto, Canada, in the late '50s. In the early '60s, Hawkins recruited an all-Canadian lineup of musicians: guitarist Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson. The band parted ways with Hawkins in 1963, calling themselves Levon and The Hawks and The Canadian Squires before settling -- once again -- on The Hawks.
In the mid-'60s, Bob Dylan recruited The Hawks as his backing band. They followed him to Woodstock, New York, where they recorded The Basement Tapes. Members of The Hawks, who co-wrote some of the Basement Tapes material with Dylan, soon began creating their own songs and identity, morphing into The Band. Dylan and The Band continued to work together over the years, releasing a joint live album, Before the Flood, in 1974.
The Band released several well-received, Americana-tinged rock albums, perhaps none as beloved as 1968's Music From Big Pink. It was an album that, as Eric Clapton said in 1993, "changed my life and the course of American music." Other notable releases included The Band (1969), Stage Fright (1970), Cahoots (1971) and Moondog Matinee (1973).
The Band continued until 1976, when their final show was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as an album and film called The Last Waltz. Their final studio album, Islands, came out in early 1977.
Helm, like other members of the group, kicked off a solo career, releasing four albums as a frontman between 1977 and 1982. But The Band couldn't help but live up to their name, and they reformed without Robertson in 1983. They continued in various incarnations, withstanding the 1986 suicide of Manuel and continuing to release studio albums, including 1993's well-received Jericho.
During this period, Helm and Danko toured with Ringo Starr in 1989 as part of Starr's original All Starr Band, with Helm performing "The Weight" and "Up On Cripple Creek," backed by Starr, Danko, Joe Walsh, Clarence Clemons, Billy Preston, Nils Lofgren and occasional guest Garth Hudson.
The Band finally called it quits in December 1999, when Danko died of heart failure at age 55.
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998. Although his illness at times reduced his vocal output to a whisper, he continued to tour and record critically acclaimed solo albums, including 2007's Dirt Farmer and 2009's Grammy-winning Electric Dirt.
Throughout the 2000s, Helm lived out his musical dream of hosting fun, boisterous concerts -- dubbed Midnight Rambles -- at his Woodstock home, aka "The Barn." Helm used the concerts, which featured guest appearances by scores of friends and popular musicians, as a way of paying his medical bills. There was essentially nowhere else he'd rather be; on Grammy night in early 2010, when he was among the nominees, he was at home in Woodstock hosting another Midnight Ramble at The Barn.