Levon Helm dead at 71

Levon Helm, the drummer and lone American in the legendary Canadian rock group The Band, has died.

“He passed away peacefully at 1:30 this afternoon surrounded by his friends and bandmates,” Helm’s long-time guitarist and friend Larry Campbell told Rolling Stone magazine on Thursday. “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.”

Helm lent his distinctively gruff southern drawl as lead vocalist on many of The Band’s most notable songs, including The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Rag Mama Rag. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in the 1990s, and subsequently went through 28 rounds of radiation treatment to stave off the disease.

Helm was born in Arkansas on May 26, 1940. As Rolling Stone reports, Helm grew up during the rise of rock and roll, and saw early performances by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. He later toured with Bob Dylan soon after the iconic songwriter spurned the folk movement by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. During the late 1960s and ’70s, Helm and The Band released two acclaimed albums and cemented their reputation as an influential and respected roots rock group.

Later in life, Helm lived in Woodstock, N.Y., where he performed regular gigs with at his barn/studio with a band called The Midnight Ramble (this was reportedly part of an effort to pay his medical bills). He won three Grammy awards for his later work, including his 2011 live album, Ramble at the Ryman. Before his health deteriorated this month, at his last gig in Ann Arbor, Mich., he was able to take lead vocals for a rousing rendition of The Band classic Ophelia, one last time. Helm was 71.

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