UPDATED 3:30 p.m.: Levon Helm has died.
The Associated Press is reporting that he's "in 'final stages' of cancer battle."
After being diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, Helm's voice was reduced to a whisper but he made a stunning recovery, singing on the Grammy Award-winning albums "Dirt Farmer" (2007) and "Electric Dirt" (2009) as well as performing acclaimed, all-star concerts at his Woodstock home.
I interviewed Helm in January of 2005 (see slightly edited version of story below) to advance his appearance as part of that year's Sarasota Film Festival, where I met the man responsible for making some of my favorite records.
Here's to hoping for a miracle.
—Photo credit: Richard Drew, AP file photo
Original run date: January 28, 2005
This Wheel's Still on Fire: The Band's Levon Helm talks about 'living in an age of miracles'
"We're living in an age of miracles," Levon Helm, 64, declared jubilantly. "A couple years ago I couldn't even talk."
Helm is one of the more original and soulful vocalist in rock 'n' roll history. The Band's most famous anthems — "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" — are all buoyed by his husky pipes. In a cruel twist of fate, though, the singer was silenced by cancer of the vocal chords about five years ago.
"But now I'm coming back more and more and better and better," Helm affirmed. "I even sing some harmonies with my daughter Amy."
Any chance he'll sing lead again?
"I hope so," Helm said. "I got my fingers crossed."
So do we.
"Put in a good word," he joked. Then Helm unleashed his trademark chuckle.
Helm laughed throughout the interview. It was a beautiful thing. The Arkansas native starts with a subtle wheeze and then it swells into a rather high-pitched guffaw. It's the kind of laugh that, like his music, can warm a room.
"We're trying to be what you might call invigorating," Helm said from his home/studio in snow covered Woodstock, N.Y. "We got the fireplace stoked up good and lil' Sammy Davis is coming over and this place will really heat up."
Davis is the lead vocalist in The Levon Helm Band. Helm has remained active in the music by utilizing his talents as an impeccable drummer, bassist, guitarist and mandolin player.
"When I lost my voice the best thing I could do for a band was play the drums and be a spark plug," Helm said. "Music is still my main attention, it's still the most fun.
"Lil' Sammy, he is where my heart is. Playing the blues, he's damn good at it. We do some rock things and some love songs but when it comes to the Delta blues, oh boy, he's fantastic."
In addition to performing with his own band, he produces records for others at his Levon Helm Studios (www.levonhelm.com). Helm described the building as "three barns — the big one in the middle is the main studio." Helm lives next to the studio so he can "be right next to the action and jump right in when someone starts to play."
The Levon Helm Band performs originals and classic blues covers. No Band songs. Helm is proud of his past accomplishments but his rift with Robbie Robertson and the loss of two fellow band members puts a damper on past glories.
Legacy of The Band
The Band landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1970. The caption read: "The New Sound of Country Rock." From 1968-74 it was one of the most influential groups in popular music.
But back in 1965, Helm's group was called Levon and the Hawks. That summer they were the house band at a club called Tony Mart's in Somers Point, N.J., when Bob Dylan "discovered" them.
The Band eventually toured with Dylan in 1965-66 and then holed up in Woodstock with him and recorded "The Basement Tapes" and their debut album "Big Pink."
The Band's earthy stew of blues, country, R&B, folk, rock and old-time storytelling separated them from their peers. To this day, albums such as "Music from Big Pink," "The Band" and their live document "Rock of Ages" are among the finest releases of the era.
"There's nothing so powerful as the truth," Helm said. "Those songs are still as powerful because they're still true (pause). Maybe one of these days the credit will reflect how they were made."
Helm has been publicly blasting Robertson for decades over songwriting royalties, the bread and butter of the music industry. Robertson is solely credited for most of The Band's songs. Helm (and other band members in the past) argue the creative process was a group effort.
In his 1993 autobiography, "This Wheel's on Fire," Helm writes: "It's important to recognize Robertson's role as a catalyst and writer, but I blame (manager) Albert Grossman for letting him or giving him or making him take too much credit for the Band's work."
The Band reunited sans Robertson in 1983. They were enjoying mild success when vocalist/ pianist Richard Manuel killed himself in Winter Haven following a 1986 concert. Original members Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson toured and recorded periodically as The Band until Danko died of heart failure in1999.
"I'm just lucky to be around," Helm said.