NEW YORK - Levon Helm, who helped forge a deep-rooted American music as the drummer and singer for the Band, died Thursday in Manhattan. He was 71 and lived in Woodstock, N.Y.
His death, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, was from complications of cancer, said a spokeswoman for Vanguard Records, for which he had recorded several albums.
In Mr. 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.
Mr. Helm 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 the Band’s 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, Mr. Helm continued to perform at every opportunity, 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 down-home, eclectic concerts called Midnight Rambles, which led to tours and Grammy-winning albums.
Mr. 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.
Mark Lavon Helm was born in Elaine, Ark., the son of a cotton farmer with land near Turkey Scratch, Ark. In his 1993 autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band,’’ written with Stephen Davis, Mr. Helm said he grew up hearing live bluegrass, Delta blues, country, and the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll; Memphis was just across the river.
His father gave him a guitar when he was 9, and he soon started performing: in a duo with his sister Linda and in a high school rock ’n’ roll band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. He also played drums in the Marvell High School band.
Mr. Helm was in 11th grade when the Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins hired him as a drummer. He traveled with Hawkins to Canada, where the shows paid better, and Hawkins settled there. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks played six nights a week in Ontario and had a number of hit singles.
In Canada, Hawkins gradually assembled the lineup that would become the Band. “He knew what musicians had the fire,’’ Mr. Helm once said. By 1961, Hawkins was backed by Mr. Helm, Robertson, Manuel, Rick Danko on bass, and Garth Hudson on organ. They had trouble pronouncing Lavon, and Mr. Helm began calling himself Levon.
In 1963, weary of Hawkins’s discipline, the five Hawks started their own bar-band career as Levon and the Hawks. The blues singer John Hammond Jr. heard them in Toronto and brought Robertson, Hudson and Mr. Helm into the studio in 1964 to back him on the album “So Many Roads.’’
Bob Dylan famously brought an electric band to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and after its members had made other commitments, he hired Robertson and Mr. Helm for a summer tour. At their first rehearsals, Mr. Helm recalled, his reaction to Dylan was, “I couldn’t believe how many words this guy had in his music, or how he remembered them all.’’ Before playing their first show, at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York, Dylan told the band, “Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets.’’
They polarized the audience and were booed, and while a subsequent concert at the Hollywood Bowl was better received, another band member, the keyboardist Al Kooper, chose to leave. At that point Mr. Helm told Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, “Take us all, or don’t take anybody.’’ The Hawks became Dylan’s band.
They backed Dylan on a studio single, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’’ and toured with him through the fall. Mr. Helm quit the band late in 1965. “I wasn’t made to be booed,’’ he wrote.
Dylan had a motorcycle accident in 1966 that ended his touring with the Hawks.
In winter 1967, the band summoned Mr. Helm to rejoin them. With Manuel on drums, Mr. Helm picked up mandolin, although he would soon return to drums.
Grossman got the Hawks their own recording contract with Capitol in February 1968, initially as the Crackers, a name Capitol didn’t like. There was no band name on the LP label or front cover of “Music From Big Pink,’’ the group’s debut album, which simply had a painting by Dylan as its cover. The LP label listed all the musicians’ names, while inside the double-fold album cover, the musicians were listed under the words “The Band.’’
“The name of the group is just our Christian names,’’ Robertson insisted in a September 1968 interview. But the band became the Band.
Released on July 1, 1968, the year after “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’’ “Music From Big Pink’’ was “rebelling against the rebellion,’’ Mr. Helm wrote. There were no elaborate studio confections, no psychedelic jams, no gimmicks; the music was stately and homespun, with a deliberately old-time tone behind the enigmatic lyrics. Sales were modest but the album’s influence was huge, leading musicians like Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead back toward concision.
Adding to its mystique, the Band didn’t tour until 1969 because Danko broke his neck in an auto accident. It made its concert debut as the Band at Winterland in San Francisco in April 1969.
By then, the Band was well into recording its second album, simply titled “The Band,’’ which would include the group’s only Top 30 single, “Up on Cripple Creek.’’ The album was universally hailed, and the Band played a summer of huge pop festivals, backing Dylan at the Isle of Wight and performing in August at Woodstock.
The Band would never match its two initial masterpieces. By the time the group started recording its 1970 album, “Stage Fright,’’ members were drinking heavily and using heroin, and there were disputes over songwriting credits and publishing royalties, of which Robertson had by far the greatest share. The collaborative spirit of the first two albums was disappearing. But the Band’s career had momentum; it toured internationally and a live album, “Rock of Ages,’’ reached the Top 10 in 1972. In 1974, the Band made a studio album with Dylan, “Planet Waves,’’ and toured with him; “The Basement Tapes,’’ a collection of songs with and without Dylan from the Big Pink era, was released in 1975.
In September 1976, Robertson decided to declare the end of the Band’s touring career with a grand finale: “The Last Waltz,’’ an all-star concert at Winterland on Thanksgiving 1976. Recorded for an album, it was also filmed by Martin Scorsese and released under the same title. Mr. Helm hated the film, believing that it glorified Robertson and slighted the rest of the Band. After “The Last Waltz,’’ the original Band lineup returned to the studio for one last album, the desultory “Islands.’’
Mr. Helm, a heavy smoker, contracted throat cancer in the late 1990s, and for months he could not speak above a whisper. A tumor was removed from his vocal cords, and he underwent 28 radiation treatments. Medical bills threatened him with the loss of his home. Partly to raise money, in 2004 he began putting on concerts called Midnight Rambles at his barn: leisurely house parties with unannounced guest stars, featuring a band of his own that delved into old and new Americana as well as the Band catalog.
His voice strengthened, and the core of his Midnight Ramble bands became a touring and recording group; it performed in 2009 at the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival on its site in Bethel, N.Y., although Mr. Helm was unable to sing that night. Mr. Helm’s 2007 and 2009 studio albums, “Dirt Farmer’’ and “Electric Dirt,’’ won Grammy Awards, as did his 2011 “Ramble at the Ryman’’ recorded live in Nashville and broadcast on PBS.
Mr. Helm leaves his wife, the former Sandra Dodd, a daughter, Amy Helm, from a previous relationship, and two grandchildren.