Helm was the only American in the Hawks, which included four Canadians: songwriter and guitarist Robertson, guitarist-keyboardist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. For a time after they broke with Hawkins they continued as Levon and the Hawks, acknowledging his role as the primary singer.
Dylan and the Hawks were booed by audiences in the U.S. and England when Dylan toured in the mid-1960s, folk purists arguing that he had betrayed his roots in the music of Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Pete Seeger and other folk artists.
But Dylan ultimately triumphed in electrifying his sound. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, he went into seclusion at an upstate New York house dubbed "Big Pink," working with the members of the Hawks, recording dozens of songs in sessions that were widely bootlegged and only released years later as "The Basement Tapes."
Some of those songs surfaced when that group launched its own career, for which the members adopted the name the Band in a nod to its star-free ethos.
At a time when rock was splintering in disparate directions — psychedelia, early heavy metal, folk-rock and pure pop — the Band took listeners back to the root strains that originally gave birth to rock. The timeless sound that resulted, beginning with the 1968 debut album "Music From Big Pink," influenced hundreds of musicians who followed in its wake, and the Band almost single-handedly established the template for a genre that has come to be known as Americana music.
Rather than a lead singer surrounded by accompanists, the Band was an egalitarian collective in which each member's contributions were indispensable. All five were multitalented musicians who shifted roles for different songs, and often within the same song, creating a fluid and democratic approach to music making that was the Band's signature.
A perfect example is "The Weight," one of the cornerstones of the Band's repertoire. After an arcing opening solo acoustic guitar riff, Helm struck three chest-rattling drumbeats before establishing the rock-steady loping rhythm, then delivered the evocative first verse evoking the weariness of a generation battle-scarred both by the Vietnam War and the broad social and political unrest of the 1960s:
I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling 'bout half-past dead
I just need a place where I can lay my head
'Hey mister, can you tell me, where a man might find a bed?'
He just grinned and shook his head, 'No,' was all he said.
Helm handed the fourth verse off to Danko, and in the chorus with Danko and Manuel created a multilayered tapestry of voices.
Helm's was the dominant voice on that song and other signature works including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Rag Mama Rag," "Ophelia," "Don't Do It" and "Daniel and the Sacred Harp."
"The Band was an ensemble — it wasn't a group of soloists — and they worked together so great," said Lauren Onkey, vice president of education and public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted the group in 1994. "But when I hear Levon's voice, I hear it crying out over everybody else's. He had the roots of all elements of American music. I don't think any of them could have handled 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' the way Levon did."
Grammy Museum executive director Robert Santelli, co-author with E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg of the 1991 book "The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock's Great Drummers," said, "Something I didn't realize until I wrote the book with Max is the respect — not just as a singer, but as a drummer — that Levon Helm had in the music world. Max considers Levon Helm one of the greatest drummers in popular music history, as high as you would rank [Led Zeppelin's] John Bonham or [Cream and Blind Faith's] Ginger Baker, obviously for different reasons.
"My sense is that Levon Helm was the greatest white blues drummer of all time," Santelli said. "He had an innate ability to create something that not only had great authenticity, but also was strikingly original in the way he played it."
When Dylan emerged from his hiatus in 1974 with a new album, "Planet Waves," and a tour, once again he called on the Band. Among the highlights of their tour together were his thunderous recasting of his 1966 song "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" and the massive, newly muscular arrangement of "All Along the Watchtower," both propelled by Helm's explosive drumming.
But after having toured incessantly for 20 years, the Band called it quits in 1976 with perhaps the most famous sendoff concert ever, an all-star affair that director Martin Scorsese documented in the concert film "The Last Waltz." Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond and numerous others played at the concert in San Francisco that brought the Band's career to a close.