In sad—albeit somewhat expected—news, Levon Helm, legendary drummer for The Band, has passed away at the age of 71. Just a few days ago, Helm’s daughter Amy and wife Sandy posted a message on his website announcing that the musician was nearing the end of his long battle with throat cancer.
Helm’s record label, Vanguard Records, released a statement today that confirmed his death: “Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.”
In addition to his drumming and mandolin picking, the Arkansas native often contributed vocals to The Band, singing lead on some of their most recognizable hits like “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Ophelia” and lending a distinctly Southern aesthetic to the mostly Canadian group.
Helm was temporarily silenced in the late ‘90s when he was first diagnosed with throat cancer. Rather than put his music career on hold, he began hosting his famous Midnight Rambles, bringing along a slew of famous guest stars to handle the singing. The Rambles were inspired by the traveling minstrel shows Helm saw growing up, where, as he told Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, at night “the songs would get a bit juicier, the jokes would get a little funnier, and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times.” Miraculously, his voice returned, and in 2007 he released his comeback album Dirt Farmer, which took home a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Helm’s former bandmate Robbie Robertson issued a statement yesterday, saying “Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”
Check out Levon Helm and The Band performing “Ophelia” during The Last Waltz below, and stay tuned for updates as we get them.