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The Band's Levon Helm Dies at 71

Date April 19, 2012

Levon Helm

Levon Helm, the drummer and singer for the Band, has died, Rolling Stone reports. He was 71.

Helm passed away Thursday in New York after a long battle with throat cancer. "He passed away peacefully at 1:30 this afternoon surrounded by his friends and bandmates," the Band guitarist Larry Campbell told the magazine. "All his friends were there, and it seemed like Levon was waiting for them. Ten minutes after they left we sat there and he just faded away. He did it with dignity. It was even two days ago they thought it would happen within hours, but he held on. It seems like he was Levon up to the end, doing it the way he wanted to do it. He loved us, we loved him."

See other celebrities we lost this year

Born in 1940 in Arkansas, Helm was inspired to pick up his first pair of drum sticks after seeing Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer in concert. He joined the backup band of rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in 1960. It was in that group that he met several future members of the Band. Eventually, those members broke off to form their own group and went on to play with Bob Dylan — a collaboration that made them famous.

The group recorded the famous Basement Tapes album and signed with Capitol Records as The Band. They recorded two well-known albums, 1968's Music From Big Pink and 1969's The Band, which produced hits like "The Weight", "Up on Cripple Creek," "Ophelia" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The Band broke up in 1976 after its farewell concert now known as "The Last Waltz."

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Helm, one of rock's first singing drummers,  soon after formed his own band, Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars. He also earned acclaim playing the father of Sissy Spacek's character in Coal Miner's Daughter. Helm reunited with three other former Band members in the early '80s, a pairing which produced three studio albums before The Band ended for good in 1999.

After being diagnosed with throat cancer in the late '90s, Helm underwent 28 radiation treatments and eventually recovered his voice. He recorded two solo albums, including 2007's Dirt Farmer, a Grammy winner for Best Traditional Folk album.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Helm had to cancel several gigs including his scheduled April 27 appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. His daughter Amy and wife Sandy posted a note on his website saying Tuesday saying that Helm was in the "final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey. Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration...he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage." 

Helm is survived by his wife and his daughter.

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