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Levon Helm Passes

LEVON HELM, 71, The Band's commanding drummer and singer, whose solid beat and Arkansas twang helped define classics from the tragic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" to the playful "Up on Cripple Creek," died Thursday after battling cancer. Helm and his band mates—Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel—were musical virtuosos who returned to the roots of American music in the late 1960s as other rockers veered into psychedelia, heavy metal and jams. The group's 1968 debut, Music from Big Pink, and its follow-up, The Band, remain landmark albums of the era, and songs such as "The Weight," "Dixie Down" and "Cripple Creek" have become rock standards. The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Helm, the only American citizen in the band, was just out of high school when he joined rocker Ronnie Hawkins for a tour of Canada in 1957 as the drummer for the Hawks. That band eventually recruited a group of Canadian musicians who, along with Helm, spent grueling years touring rough bars in Canada and the South before hooking up with Bob Dylan and forming The Band. Helm was also a successful actor, with roles in Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff. In his memoir, This Wheel's on Fire, Helm accused Robertson of getting songwriting credits on Band songs that other members considered group efforts. While Helm's illness reduced his voice to something close to a whisper, it did not end his musical career. Riddled with debt, in 2004, he began a series of free-wheeling late-night shows in his barn in Woodstock that were patterned after medicine shows from his youth, featuring the likes of Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello or his daughter Amy on vocals and violin. He recorded Dirt Farmer in 2007, which was followed by Electric Dirt in 2009. Both albums won Grammys. He won another this year for Ramble at the Ryman. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 with The Band. (4/19p)

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