The only non-Canadian member of the Band, Levon Helm was known for his deeply soulful, country-accented voice and his creative drumming style, which was highlighted on many of the Band's recordings, including "The Weight,” "Up on Cripple Creek,” "Ophelia" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Helm was born in Marvell, Arkansas, and grew up in Turkey Scratch, a hamlet west of Helena, Arkansas. He saw Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys when he was six and decided to become a musician. He began playing the guitar at the age of eight, and he took up drums shortly thereafter. After graduating from high school, Helm was invited to join rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins' band, the Hawks. Shortly after Helm joined the Hawks, the group moved to Toronto, Canada, where, in 1959, it signed with Roulette Records. In the early 1960s, Helm and Hawkins recruited an all-Canadian lineup of musicians: guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson. In 1963, the band parted ways with Hawkins and started touring under the name Levon and the Hawks and, later, as the Canadian Squires before finally changing back to the Hawks. Then, in 1965, Bob Dylan asked the group to be his backing band. Disheartened by fans' negative response to Dylan's new electric sound, Helm returned to Arkansas. Then, in 1967, he was asked to rejoin the group, which at this point was simply being called the Band.
After signing with Capitol Records, the Band released its first album, Music from Big Pink. Helm sang lead on one of the album’s best-known songs, “The Weight.” The Band’s second album, simply called The Band, was the group’s masterpiece and commercial breakthrough. The group released five more albums before breaking up in 1977. The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, was released as a documentary film by director Martin Scorsese.
With the breakup of the Band, Helm began recording solo albums, including Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars, Levon Helm, American Son and (once again) Levon Helm. In 1983, the Band reunited without Robbie Robertson. In 1986, while on tour, Richard Manuel committed suicide. Helm, Danko and Hudson continued on as the Band, releasing the album Jericho in 1993 and High on the Hog in 1996. The final album from the Band was the 30th anniversary album, Jubilation, released in 1998.
In the late 1990s, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. Although the tumor was then successfully treated, Helm's vocal cords were damaged. In the early 2000s, Helm began holding Midnight Rambles at his home in Woodstock, New York. These concerts, which featured Helm and a variety of musical guests, enabled Helm to raise money to pay his medical bills.
In 2007, Helm released Dirt Farmer, his first solo studio album since 1982. Electric Dirt followed in 2009, and in 2011, he released Ramble at the Ryman, a live album. In 2010, a documentary on Helm's life titled Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm was released. On April 19, 2012, Levon Helm lost his battle with cancer.
Levon Helm was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Band in 1994.