Levon Helm of The Band has walked on, succumbing to cancer on the afternoon of April 19, his family announced.
“Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon,” his website reads. “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.”
Bandmate Robbie Robertson, famously estranged from Helm, visited him in the hospital over the weekend after learning how gravely ill he was.
“Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me,” Robertson wrote on his Facebook page after sitting vigil at his mentor’s hospital bedside on Sunday afternoon. “I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”
Robertson is Mohawk and spent much of his childhood with his mother’s extended family on the Six Nations reserve. But Helm also had Native roots, according to The New York Times, which reported that “In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, written with Stephen Davis, Mr. Helm said he was part Chickasaw Indian through his paternal grandmother.”
Helm started out in 11th grade, The New York Times said, hired by rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins to play the drums. The two traveled to Canada and settled there, playing as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Robertson joined them as Hawkins put together what became The Band over the next few years. In 1961 the group had taken its final form, with Rick Danko on bass, Garth Hudson on the organ and Richard Manuel on piano and singing lead vocals.
In 1963 the group broke off from Hawkins and became simply The Band, backing Bob Dylan and performing on their own until breaking up in the late 1970s, largely due to a fallout between Helm and Robertson.
Helm’s throat cancer was diagnosed in 1998, the Associated Press reported, and he died of complications from the disease at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, about a month shy of his 72nd birthday. Robertson and Hudson are the only surviving members of the group. Richard Manuel killed himself in 1986, and Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999.
Rock fans will not soon forget classic hits that include Music From the Big Pink and The Band, as well as “The Weight,” “Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek,” songs that have morphed into rock anthems.
Below is the iconic clip from The Last Waltz, the movie they appeared in just before The Band split up. And what tribute would be complete without “The Weight”?