Levon Helm, best known as the drummer and singer of The Band, passed away today after a long fight with cancer. He was 71. Helm's distinct voice and drumming style cemented him as a legend in 60s and 70s rock, soul and rhythm & blues. Helm grew up in a small town in Arkansas, and it was there that he was taught the foundations of American blues and bluegrass by his family. After joining forces with fellow southerner Ronnie Hawkins in the early 60s, Helm recruited the Canadian super force, future members of The Band: Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. When the quintet split from Hawkins, they recieved a career changing offer from Bob Dylan to back him on his legendary 1965 electric tour. Levon took time off from his group, after fearing that the poor reception by British crowds would ruin his career.
When he came back to The Band in '67, Helm sang, wrote and drummed on one of the greatest albums of the 60s, Music from Big Pink. His iconic southern drawl on tracks like "The Weight" and "I Shall Be Released" were just hints of the beginning of a career that spanned five decades of American music. On The Band's eponymous 1969 album, Helm sang what would prove to be one of the group's most popular songs, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The track spoke to the South's conflicted history with the Civil War, and with Helm's stunning voice, listeners saw their divided country from an entirely new perspective.
After a graceful exit from The Band--which produced one of the greatest music documentaries of all time, The Last Waltz--Helm began work on his own, long-lasting, solo career. Helm continued to play music in Woodstock, NY, home of "Big Pink," where The Band recorded their first record. He had wildly popular "Midnight Rambles" in which performers from across the world came to his barn and played music for a packed audience deep into the night. After battling throat cancer in the late 90s, Helm made an almost complete recovery and continued to sing and drum up until this year. Unlike other careers that lasted as long as Helm's, his music continued to stay awesome. Dirt Farmer, which came out in 2007, was an excellent blend of Roots Rock and Bluegrass that featured Helm, his friends and daughter, Amy.
As we say goodbye to Levon, it's good to think about what it was that made him such a powerful figure in Rock music. His drumming took traditional Southern shuffles and laid down a heavy backbeat that rethought the rhythm of American music. With Helm, the listener heard all of those genres, from Johnny Cash to Marvin Gaye, he could play it all. In his voice and manners it was plain to see that Levon Helm loved the music he played. The passion in his playing, writing and singing has made him a unique voice for the past fifty years, and the influence of Helm's voice will be seen for decades to come.