When The Band burst onto the pop music scene in the late 1960s, their music was so original, so different than the psychedelic, bubblegum or hard-rock bands of the day, it made people stop and wonder exactly what it was they were hearing.

“When I first heard their music, I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ ” said Bob Ludwig, head of Gateway Mastering Studios in Portland. “It was something completely unique at the time. It had a big American Southern feel to it, which no other music really had then.”

Ludwig, like many others in the music industry, talked reverently about the impact and influence of The Band this week after hearing that drummer and vocalist Levon Helm was losing his long battle with cancer. Helm, 71, died Thursday in New York.

But unlike most in the local music scene, Ludwig had a very close connection to The Band’s music. He mastered many of the group’s albums, beginning in the late 1960s when he was working in New York City.

Mastering is the process of making the final adjustments in the sound of a recording, so Ludwig listened to a lot of The Band’s albums as part of his job over the years, including their self-titled album in 1969, “Stage Fright” in 1970, “Moondog Matinee” in 1973 and “The Last Waltz” in 1978.

Ludwig met Helm only once, because while mastering he worked mostly with The Band’s guitarist, Robbie Robertson. But the drummer left quite an impression nevertheless.

“His drumming and his vocals were like nobody else,” Ludwig said.

Helm was born May 26, 1940, in Arkansas, and grew up watching live performances from blues legends as well as rock and country pioneers Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. As a teen, he became the drummer for rocker Ronnie Hawkins and his Hawks, which often toured Canada. Eventually, the other future members of The Band were recruited from that country to join The Hawks: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robertson and Garth Hudson.

After breaking off from Hawkins, the group called themselves Levon and The Hawks, and became Bob Dylan’s backing band when Dylan began electrifying his performances in 1965.

Later, while Dylan and The Hawks were writing new material at a house in Woodstock, N.Y., local residents began calling the group of musicians “the band.” The name stuck. The Band signed with Capitol Records, and when their first record, “Music from Big Pink,” came out in 1968, it landed them on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on TV.

From there, The Band’s music played a pivotal role in rock history, steering generations of musicians to an earthy, folksy, story-driven style that would be emulated by everyone from James Taylor to The Eagles.

Three of their albums were named to Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 Albums of All Time list in 2003, with two of them — “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band” — making the top 50. The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994; in 2008, they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ludwig has mastered records from virtually everyone in pop music in the past 40-plus years, including Bruce Springsteen, Queen and The Rolling Stones. But he says The Band is “definitely in my top five of all-time bands.”

Helm was an essential ingredient to that success. He brought Southern charm to the otherwise all-Canadian group. He sang with twang and grit, and left his mark as a vocalist on iconic rock standards such as “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

His look and his voice personified the spirit of The Band.

“His music has been a part of my life since I can remember, sitting on the floor of my folks’ living room shuffling through my dad’s records,” said Nate Soule, 34, guitarist for the Maine-based group The Mallett Brothers Band. “As I looked at the cover of ‘Northern Lights — Southern Cross’ (1975), I always listened and thought, ‘If I were to ever be a musician, this is it right here.’ (Don) Henley tried to pull it off (drumming and singing), but Levon is the king, hands down.”

When The Band hooked up with Dylan, they made rock history — first by backing Dylan on his now-legendary first electric tours of the U.K. and U.S., then by writing and practicing together on a near-daily basis in Woodstock after Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966. (The sessions were the most bootlegged in history before being officially released as “The Basement Tapes” in 1975.)

The Band also later accompanied Dylan in the mid-’70s, when he returned to performance after a long hiatus. They toured hockey rinks together, and set the early standard for large-scale rock shows.

Dylan’s influence on The Band, and vice-versa, is borne out in the 1978 movie “The Last Waltz.” As a farewell before their first breakup, The Band scheduled a marathon concert in San Francisco featuring many of their influences and musical friends. The lineup was a who’s-who of rock, country and blues at the time: Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr, among others. Dylan had the prime slot, at the tail end of the show.

“You look at bands today doing that (style of music), like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, and they are direct descendents of The Band,” said Chris Brown, marketing director for the Portland-based Bull Moose Music store chain. “There were outtakes of (the movie) ‘Let It Be’ where George Harrison is talking about how great (The Band) is. You can wonder whether The Eagles and some other bands of the ’70s would have happened without them.”

While Robertson was considered the leader of The Band, the group reflected Helm’s personality. He was raw, ragged and charming.

And he didn’t take kindly to the idea of Robertson being considered the spokesman for the group. He once called “The Last Waltz” “The Last Rip-Off,” and for years spoke bitterly in interviews about how he felt Robertson had deprived the other members of songwriting royalties. When The Band reunited at various times, it was without Robertson.

(Apparently, Robertson made peace with Helm at the hospital just before his death. In a statement issued Wednesday, Robertson said, “Levon is one of the most extraordinary, talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”)

Helm continued to perform as long as he could, even after his voice was reduced to a whisper after his initial bout with throat cancer in the late 1990s. He was known for performing concerts at his home studio in Woodstock with invited guests. In 2010, he did a show there with contemporary rockers My Morning Jacket.

He had been scheduled to play a show on July 17 at the Casino Ballroom in nearby Hampton Beach, N.H., with Los Lobos. But that show was canceled due to his illness.

Helm is the third member of the band to die, following Manuel in 1986 and Danko in 1999.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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