Levon Helm's Life After Cancer

At 67, Levon Helm will release a new album this month. "We live in an age of miracles," he writes in the liner notes.

The record itself is a miracle, because not long ago cancer almost silenced him.

As drummer and guiding spirit for the legendary rock group The Band, Helm's earthy voice sang lead on many of the group's most popular songs.

Since the '60s, he has lived in Woodstock, N.Y., at the behest of Bob Dylan.

"We followed Bob up," he told CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason.

Then ten years ago, he began to feel his voice grow hoarse, and none of the usual singer's therapies would fix it. Helm, who used to smoke three packs a day, got the doctor's diagnosis: Cancer of the vocal chord.

"I think it's probably really devastating to hear something like that," Helm's daughter Amy said. "But he was really courageous about it. I wasn't so courageous about it. I was devastated by it."

But her father says Amy gave him the courage to fight.

"She insisted on going to all my radiation treatments with me after surgery and stuff," Helm said. "And I think tryin' not to let her see how scared I really was probably helped me as much as anything."

The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center was two hours from Helm's Woodstock farm. But every day for two months Helm and Amy drove there. And in 28 treatment sessions, as Helm lay on a table, doctors fired radiation at the cancerous tumor in his larynx.

He lost his voice entirely.

"He couldn't talk. It was incredible. He could barely whisper," Amy said.

So Helm could no longer sing, but he could still play the drums. And he attacked them with renewed passion.


Photos: In Concert
"And then after I got sick I needed, I couldn't take a job," he said. "So we started puttin' on little mini concerts here inside the studio."

With Amy, who also sings with the gospel group Olabelle, Helm put together a new band and invited folks into the family barn for late night shows he calls "Midnight Rambles."

"I was just tryin' to get my voice back so I could sing a two-hour show without croakin'," he said.

A few years ago, Helm's voice returned to about 70 percent of its old strength, he says, but as soulful as ever. Amy said it was amazing to hear her dad sing again.

For the new album, "Dirt Farmer," dedicated to his parents, Levon went back to songs he learned growing up on an Arkansas farm.

"That seemed to be the best place to start was those old tunes. They were the ones that made me love music," he said. "So I went right back to the beginning and tried to make those tunes sound as good as I remember 'em sounding to me when I was a baby."

Amy sings with him on the album, which she also co-produced.

"Well, you know, that's the big payoff for me," Helm said.

The payoff for his fans is that with cancer in remission, Helm has found his voice again.

"It's not a guarantee," he said. "Nothin's a guarantee. It's the old 'one day at a time.' And that's all it's supposed to be, I guess."

For more information visit:

  •  Levon Helm
  •  Musicians On Call
  •  Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
  •  National Cancer Institute