Band drummer and vocalist Levon Helm dies aged 71

Fri, Apr 20, 2012, 01:00

LEVON HELM, drummer and vocalist with The Band, has died at the age of 71. American music has lost one of its last true veterans.

Helm was a musicians’ musician, a drummer who would lay out a groove with punch, control and refinement.

Then there was his voice, one of the most distinctive in music. To hear him play and sing was to hear generations of American music, across all styles and genres, from folk mountain tunes to the dark swamp rock of the Mississippi, distilled and refined through a lifetime of playing with the best musicians of his generation.

Together with bass player Rick Danko he formed one of the finest rhythm sections ever to put a groove to a beat, and a partnership that formed the backbone of The Band.

The group, comprising Danko, Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel met as the backing group to journeyman Ronnie Hawkins in the late 1950s, before ending up as Bob Dylan’s backing band as he sought to go electric.

When it came to performing on their own, they opted to stay simply as The Band.

When The Band decided to call it a day, after about 18 years of almost continual touring, with a farewell concert in San Francisco’s Winterland, music royalty showed up to send them off.

Among them were Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris and Dr John. Martin Scorsese immortalised the concert in his documentary the Last Waltz.

The end of The Band, though, was not a gentle parting of the ways, and Helm was unhappy that the group were calling it a day, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of guitarist Robbie Robertson.

A reformation was inevitable, and in 1983 they got back together, without Robertson. Then, in 1986, Richard Manuel killed himself on tour. Helm, Danko and Hudson would limp on until Danko’s death in 1999, but there was little doubt that the Last Waltz marked the effective end.

Helm was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s, and in a way it forced him to concentrate on his solo career to pay his medical bills. He was still playing until recent weeks, when he cancelled a series of shows as he became too ill to perform. He is survived by his wife, Sandy, and daughter, Amy.