"Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer," reads a very sad message on the website of former The Band member Levon Helm. "Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey." The 71-year-old multi-instrumentalist was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s and has been fighting it off-and-on since then.
Robbie Robertson, former singer and guitarist of The Band, released a statement revealing the details of his hospital visit with Helm this last Sunday. "It really hit me hard because I thought he had beaten throat cancer," Robertson says. "I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and I will miss him and love him forever."
Aside from drumming for The Band—the most important and influential group in the genre of Americana/roots rock—Helm sang two of their best-known songs. He provided lilting, soulful vocals for "The Weight" on Music From Big Pink and delivered a buoyant, country-inflected performance for "Up on Cripple Creek." The Band's farewell concert was immortalized in Martin Scorsese's 1976 rock doc The Last Waltz, although they've reformed for several tours since then.
After Helm's 1998 throat cancer diagnosis, he underwent radiation therapy and quit his once-heavy smoking habit. In spite of the toll that battle took on his voice, Helm continued performing until recently. He put together what he called "The Midnight Ramble" in the 2000s, a series of open-to-the-public concerts at his barn/home/studio in Woodstock, NY. Those modern hoedowns attracted guest musicians from Elvis Costello to Norah Jones to former Band bandmate Garth Hudson.
In the last five years, Helm released three acclaimed Americana albums. Listen to "Chest Fever" from 2011's Ramble at the Ryman below.