A new message from LevonHelm.com confirms what many fans feared when he suddenly postponed an April 6 concert appearance, just weeks after returning from an unexplained surgical procedure: The legendary co-founder of the Band and multiple solo Grammy winner has seen his cancer battle take a turn for the worse.
Helm, 71, sang on a number of the Band’s most recognizable songs, including “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek.” He was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s, a condition that originally led doctors to advise a radical laryngectomy. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer instead underwent a difficult series of radiation treatments. The tumor was successfully removed, but Helm’s vocal cords were damaged. He spent years working to regain the tenor voice that helped define the Band, eventually releasing a trio of well-received albums and regularly holding house concerts in New York state’s Ulster County dubbed “The Midnight Ramble.”
It’s unknown when this new bout began. Helm received 1,300 Facebook messages of well wishes within 30 minutes of the posting this afternoon, which said in part: “Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.”
Former Band guitarist Robbie Robertson hinted at Helm’s plight when he sent “love and prayers” during a speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday night.
Helm’s Ramble at the Ryman earned him a third consecutive Grammy on Feb. 12, even as he missed a month of performances due to the unknown medical problem. That live album, recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Theater, featured guest appearances by Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, among others. Helm bested a well-regarded list of fellow nominees, including Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, who has also appeared at Helm’s Midnight Rambles.
Helm’s 2007 comeback album Dirt Farmer also earned a Grammy for best traditional folk album. The follow up Electric Dirt then won the first-ever Grammy for best Americana album in 2010. Ramble at the Ryman, issued last year, won in the same category.
“Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration,” the posting at LevonHelm.com continued. “He has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage.”
Rolling Stone magazine has ranked Levon Helm No. 91 in its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time.
Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Levon Helm. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
LEVON HELM – RAMBLE AT THE RYMAN (2011): We’re reminded again here that Levon Helm was the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, its yearning storyteller and gritty soul. Their records were drawn from continuity, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences and performed in a chorus as if by brothers. That has always made a treasure hunt out of selecting any individual triumph on their old records. Not here, as this Ramble becomes a showcase for Helm. It’s also an important reminder: The Band’s principal songwriting credits may have gone to Robbie Robertson, but they were then — and are here, again — often completely inhabited by Helm’s carnal Arkansas drawl.
LEVON HELM – ELECTRIC DIRT (2009): Nothing drove old Levon Helm down. Not the messy dissolution of his group, The Band; the perhaps inevitable subsequent financial ruin; a terrifying bout with throat cancer; a pair of shatteringly tragic deaths within his inner circle; or a yawning quarter century span between solo records that made him all but obscure in modern musical circles. There is, of course, a dark and deep sense of loss — this candid accounting of, and quiet mourning for, the old times, the old ways, the old friends that fans of some of The Band’s best-known Helm-sung tunes (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Up on Cripple Creek”) will recognize. But Helm sings with the bone-deep confidence of someone who has eyeballed our biggest fears and lived to tell the tale.
LEVON HELM – DIRT FARMER (2007): His earthy, Arkansas drawl epitomized the roots-minded rock combo The Band just as much as Robbie Robertson’s evocative compositions on American folklore. And now he’s back with a rare studio album that makes The Band sound like a sleek, electronica dance music. There’s not a trace of a plugged-in instrument anywhere and amongst songs by Steve Earle and J.B. Lenoir are songs that aren’t even copyrighted anymore. But Helm’s steady drumming and blessedly rural warble remains. That should be plenty good enough for any fan of The Band.