Drummer was key figure in roots music

Levon Helm, the founding drummer of the Band who became a creative force in roots music and cherished Americana icon as a solo performer, died today at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York after a long battle with cancer. He was 71.

“We lost Levon at 1:30 today surrounded by friends and family, and his musicians have visited him,” guitarist and frequent Helm bandmate Larry Campbell told the Times Herald-Record. “As sad as this was, it was very peaceful.”

The Arkansas-born musician — who formed the influential group as the Hawks, the Toronto-based backup unit for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins — was the original drummer for Bob Dylan’s first touring electric group.

He was the lone American player in the Canada-bred lineup that became known as the Band, which recorded with distinction for Capitol Records in the ’60s and ’70s. Helm took the earthy, drawling lead vocals on such classic tracks by the group as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Following the Band’s celebrated Thanksgiving 1976 farewell performance, “The Last Waltz” — filmed at San Francisco’s Winterland by Martin Scorsese — Helm began a solo career and moved into acting with a well-received turn as Loretta Lynn’s father in Michael Apted’s 1980 biopic “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

After a reunion of the Band (minus guitarist Robbie Robertson) for recording and tours in the ’80s and ’90s, Helm focused on solo work and live shows at his Woodstock, N.Y., studio-performance space “the Barn.” His recordings earned three Grammys in the folk and Americana album categories in the last decade.

Born Mark Lavon Helm in Marvell, Ark. — later taking the name “Levon” because “Lavon” proved unpronounceable to many — he grew up in the Helena area, where his exposure to musicians like bluegrass king Bill Monroe and blues singer-harp player Sonny Boy Williamson inspired his desire to play; he imitated the simple, punchy style of Williamson’s drummer Peck Curtis and took up the mandolin as a second instrument.

As a teenager, Helm was recruited by fellow Arkansan Hawkins as the drummer for his touring rockabilly unit. After the act relocated to Canada, he was charged with recruiting local players; the unit solidified with the addition of Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko.

Hawkins and the Hawks recorded several explosive singles for Roulette Records, including a riotous 1963 version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” The backup group also cut some unsuccessful singles as Levon and the Hawks.

In August 1965 Helm and Robertson were hired to back the newly and controversially electrified Dylan at shows at New York’s Forest Hills Tennis Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl. Dylan subsequently brought on the Hawks as his touring band, but, after being booed vociferously at several U.S. shows, Helm exited the group; he was replaced by Mickey Jones for the remainder of the tour.

“I began to think it was a ridiculous way to make a living,” Helm wrote in his 1993 autobiography “This Wheel’s on Fire.”

In late 1967, after some time spent as a deck hand on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig, Helm rejoined his Hawks colleagues, who had recorded Dylan’s celebrated “Basement Tapes” during woodshedding sessions in Woodstock, N.Y. The group was signed to Capitol, and they took a simple new rubric — the Band — and cultivated a rustic, down-home image.

Their roots-based yet impressionistic debut, “Music From Big Pink” (1968), featured Helm’s solo vocal “The Weight,” which became the Band’s first chart single, peaking at No. 63. The bawdy “Up on Cripple Creek,” from their widely lauded sophomore set “The Band” (1969), was their highest-charting 45, reaching No. 25. In all, the group recorded eight albums for Capitol — three of which reached the U.S. top 10 — that collectively served as a key compass point for the American roots music that followed.

The Band also backed Dylan on his chart-topping 1974 collection “Planet Waves” and a sold-out co-headlining U.S. tour, documented on the album “Before the Flood.”

In 1976, Robertson decided unilaterally, with the support of the Band’s management, to end the act with an all-star retrospective concert. The “Last Waltz” show, which featured guest shots by Dylan, Hawkins, Neil Young, Muddy Waters and a host of other luminaries and friends, was a glittering sold-out event that spawned Scorsese’s great 1978 feature. But the breakup of the group led to abiding acrimony between Helm and Robertson, who the drummer had mentored in the Hawks as a teenager.

Helm, who painted a lacerating portrait of Robertson in his book, later declined to appear at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “They can just mail (my trophy) to me,” he told one reporter.

Helm recorded solo albums, with middling success, for ABC, MCA and Capitol in the ’70s and ’80s. Following his “Coal Miner’s Daughter” role, he appeared onscreen and narrated Phil Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” (1983); he continued to act into the new millennium and last appeared as Confederate general John Bell Hood in “In the Electric Mist” (2009).

Sans Robertson, the Band reunited in 1983. The group survived the suicide of Manuel at a Florida hotel in March 1986. They recorded a trio of albums on Rhino and River North Records and toured through 1999, when Danko died of apparently drug-related heart failure.

Helm was sidelined by throat cancer in 1999; while a tumor was successfully removed, he only belatedly began singing again in 2004. In the interim, he drummed behind a host of guest vocalists at his star-studded Rambles in Woodstock.

His return to recording with 2007′s “Dirt Farmer,” a mix of traditional and contemporary roots tunes, led to a Grammy for best traditional folk recording. His subsequent releases “Electric Dirt” (2009) and “Ramble at the Ryman” (2011), a live recording cut in 2008 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, both captured Grammys as best Americana album.

In 2008, Helm received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy as a member of the Band and was named artist of the year by the Americana Music Assn.

He is survived by his wife Sandy and daughter Amy, a member of his latter-day group and the folk act Ollabelle.

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