Levon Helm, who helped forge a deep-rooted American music as the drummer and singer for the Band, died Thursday in Manhattan at age 71 from complications of cancer, said a spokeswoman for Vanguard Records, for which he had recorded several albums.
In Helm's drumming, muscle, swing, economy and finesse were inseparably merged. His voice held the bluesy, weathered and resilient essence of his Arkansas upbringing in the Mississippi Delta. He was the American linchpin of the otherwise Canadian group that became Bob Dylan's backup band and then the Band. Its own songs -- largely written by guitarist Robbie Robertson and pianist Richard Manuel -- spring from roadhouse, church, backwoods, river and farm; they are rock-ribbed with history and tradition yet hauntingly surreal.
After the original Band's breakup in 1976, Helm continued to perform, working with a partly reunited Band and leading his own groups. He also acted in films, notably "Coal Miner's Daughter," and in the 2000s he became a roots-music patriarch. His barn in Woodstock has been a recording studio since 1975, and in 2004 it also became the home of eclectic concerts called Midnight Rambles, which led to tours and Grammy-winning albums.
Helm's drumming valued space over showiness. He gave his drums a muffled, bottom-heavy sound that placed them in the foundation of the arrangements, and his tom-toms were tuned so that their pitch would bend downward as the tone faded. Helm, who was born Mark Lavon Helm on May 26, 1940, didn't call attention to himself. Three bass-drum thumps at the beginning of one of the Band's anthems, "The Weight," were all that he needed to establish the song's gravity. In the Band, lead vocals changed from song to song and within songs, and harmonies were elaborately communal. But particularly when lyrics turned to myths and tall tales of the American South -- like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Ophelia" and "Rag Mama Rag" -- the lead went to Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time.
Helm, a heavy smoker, had throat cancer diagnosed in 1998, and for months he could not speak above a whisper. A tumor was removed from his vocal cords, and he underwent radiation treatments. His voice strengthened and he returned to performing. In 1984, Helm described the "right ingredients" for his work in music and film as "life and breath, heart and soul."
R.I.P. BARNABAS COLLINS
Jonathan Frid, 87, a Canadian actor best known for playing Barnabas Collins in the 1960s original vampire soap opera "Dark Shadows," has died. He died of natural causes in a hospital in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. His final screen role was a cameo in "Dark Shadows," next month's big-screen revamp directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas.