(CBS News) Legendary singer and drummer Levon Helm died Thursday at the age of 71 of cancer, a disease which had almost taken his life once before. Our Bill Flanagan of MTV has an appreciation:
Everyone who loves rock & roll is saddened by the death of Levon Helm. Levon came to international prominence as part of The Band - he sang lead on "Up on Cripple Creek," "Rag Mama Rag," "The Weight," "Don't Do It," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
He was a fair guitarist, a fine mandolin player, and one of the most influential drummers in the history of rock & roll. I remember running into Bruce Springsteen at a Levon show once and Bruce said, "We get so used to hearing VERSIONS of the thing. Levon IS the thing."
The Band's legacy was immortalized in Martin Scorsese's 1976 film "The Last Waltz." After that The Band broke up, went their separate ways. Levon made solo albums, sometimes reunited with other Band members, and took up a side career as a character actor, appearing in movies like "The Right Stuff" and "Coal Miner's Daughter."
He was the most honored citizen of Woodstock, New York, where he moved in the '60s. They even celebrated Levon Helm Day. Levon was to Woodstock what Sheriff Andy was to Mayberry.
In 1998 Levon learned that he had throat cancer. The news was grim. Even if he recovered, he would probably never talk again. He would certainly never sing again.
Here's where the story gets a bit miraculous. About 10 years ago Levon beat the odds. Word went around that Levon was getting better, that Levon was talking again.
And then . . . Levon was singing again.
In the winter of 2004 Levon had a lot of medical bills. So he and his friends hatched an idea. They would hold a concert in Levon's barn in Woodstock and invite local fans to chip in money for the show and, by the way, to bring some pies and cakes along so everyone could eat. This was the birth of Levon's Midnight Ramble.
The Ramble caught on fast, and in no time it became legendary. If you were lucky enough to score a ticket you could drive up to Woodstock on a Saturday night, head over to Levon's place and sit around in a small circle while one of the greatest rock & rollers of all time put on a show with his band and any famous friends who dropped by.
Jackson Browne, Alan Toussaint, Elvis Costello - everyone came to the Ramble. The last time I went, a few months ago, the music went from 730 until aftermidnight.)
If anybody complained to me about the sad state of rock music, I'd tell them, "If you're looking for real rock & roll, it's alive and well in Levon Helm's barn."
The last 10 miraculous years gave Levon a sort of extended victory lap. Fans got to tell him how much they loved him. Musicians lined up to honor him.
And Levon made three new albums - each of which won the Grammy Award.
It was as if Heaven decided to give Levon an extra decade, just so we could all hear his songs one more time. Just to give Levon and the people who loved him a proper chance to say goodbye.
In the whole history of rock n' roll, no one ever had a greater encore than Levon Helm.