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Levon Helm, drummer and singer on hits for The Band in '60s, '70s; May 26, 1940 -- April 19, 2012

ALBANY -- With songs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek," The Band fused rock, blues, folk and gospel to create a sound that seemed as authentically American as a Mathew Brady photograph or a Mark Twain short story.

In truth, the group had only one American -- Levon Helm.

Helm, the drummer and singer who brought an urgent beat and a genuine Arkansas twang to some of The Band's best-known songs and helped turn a bunch of musicians known mostly as Bob Dylan's backup group into one of rock's most legendary acts, has died. He was 71.

Helm, who was found to have throat cancer in 1998, died Thursday of complications from cancer in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said Lucy Sabini of Vanguard Records.

Helm and his bandmates -- Canadians 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 the 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 Band backed Dylan on his controversial electric tours of 1965-66 and collaborated with him on the legendary "Basement Tapes."

"I am terribly sad. Thank you for 50 years of friendship and music," Hudson posted on his website Thursday evening.

"No more sorrows, no more troubles, no more pain. He went peacefully to that beautiful marvelous wonderful place Levon, I'm proud of you."

The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Helm 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.

They would split from Hawkins, hook up with Dylan and eventually call themselves The Band -- because, as they explained many times, that's what everyone called them anyway.

They bid farewell to live shows with the famous "Last Waltz" concert in 1976. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were among the stars who played the show in San Francisco, filmed by Martin Scorsese for a movie of the same name, released in 1978.

"The Last Waltz" is regarded by many as the greatest of concert films, but it also helped lead to a bitter split between Robertson and Helm, once the best of friends.

While Helm would accuse Robertson of being on a star trip, Helm, ironically, was the more successful actor, with acclaimed roles in "Coal Miner's Daughter," "The Right Stuff" and other films. And no one who watched "The Last Waltz" could forget Helm's performance of "Dixie Down," shot mostly in close-up, his face squeezed with emotion.

While Helm's illness reduced his voice to something close to a whisper, it did not end his musical career. Beset by 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. Any night of the bi-weekly Midnight Rambles could feature 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."

Original members of The Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

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