The Band’s Helm dies of cancer

The Band — Richard Manuel on piano, Levon Helm on drums, lead guitarist Robbie Robertson (center) and bass guitarist Rick Danko — performed their final live concert on Nov. 27, 1976, before a crowd of 5,000 at Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco. Helm died of throat cancer on Thursday at 71.

ALBANY, N.Y. — Levon Helm, 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. He was 71.

Helm, who was found to have throat cancer in 1998, died peacefully, according to his website. On Tuesday, a message on the site said he was in the final stages of 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.

Songs such as “The Weight,” “Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek” have become rock standards.

Early on, The Band backed Bob Dylan on his sensational and controversial electric tours of 1965-66 and collaborated with him on the legendary “Basement Tapes,” which produced “I Shall Be Released,” “Tears of Rage” and many other favorites.

It was a quintessential American band, but only Helm came from the U.S.

The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, he 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 — a conceit they well lived up to.

In some ways, The Band was the closest this country ever came to the camaraderie and achievement of the Beatles. Each of the five members brought special talents that through years of touring, recording and living together blended into a unique sound.

The tall, lanky Robertson was an expert blues-rock guitarist and the group’s best lyricist, his songs inspired in part by Dylan and by the stories Helm would tell him of the South.

The baby-faced Danko was a fluid bassist, an accomplished singer and occasional writer. The bearish Hudson was a virtuoso and eccentric who could seemingly master any instrument, especially keyboards, while the sad-eyed Manuel’s haunting falsetto on “Whispering Pines,” “Tears of Rage” and others led Helm to call him the group’s lead singer.

But for many Band admirers, that honor belonged to the short, feisty Helm.