Levon Helm, drummer and singer with The Band, dies at 71

The Band's debut studio album, 1968's 'Music from Big Pink'
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Levon Helm, whose gruff vocals and razor-sharp drumming underpinned the seminal late 1960s rock group The Band, died Thursday, his recording studio said. He was 71.

"Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon," said Barbara O'Brien, executive manager of Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York, in an email to AFP.

"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," she said, adding that he was survived by his wife, daughter and two grandsons.

Rolling Stone magazine, on its website, said Helm died of throat cancer in New York. It quoted Helm's longtime guitarist Larry Campbell as saying he died "with dignity" with loved ones close by.

Helm had undergone 28 treatments for throat cancer first diagnosed in the 1990s, Rolling Stone said, adding that his worsening condition had forced him to cancel a number of scheduled concerts.

One of the very few drummers who also sang lead vocals, Helm is best known for such Band tracks as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Rag Mama Rag," "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Weight."

The Arkansas native grew up watching such early rock'n'roll stars as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis in concert before taking up the drums and, in time, joining rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins' backing band in 1960.

There he met four Canadian musicians -- Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson -- with whom he formed a new group that, after several name changes, came to be known as The Band.

Settling into Woodstock, the group famously collaborated with Bob Dylan, honed its own repetoire -- influenced by American roots music -- and cut a string of albums including "Music from Big Pink," "The Band" and "Cahoots."

The Band split up in 1976 with a farewell concert in San Francisco -- immortalized on film by director Martin Scorsese in "The Last Waltz" -- leaving Helm to pursue solo projects and to star in a film, "Coal Miner's Daughter."

He re-established The Band in 1980 with Danko, Manuel and Hudson, recording three albums with them, only to see the group tragically struck down by Manuel's suicide in 1986 and Danko's death in 1999.

Retiring to his rural home in Woodstock, Helm invited fellow musicians to join him for what he called Midnight Ramble sessions in the intimacy of his rustic Grammy-winning recording studio.

Robertson, now the sole surviving founding member of The Band, said on his Facebook page that he visited Helm in hospital last weekend.

"Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I've ever known and very much like an older brother to me," he wrote. "I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever."

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