Arkansas-born Ronnie Hawkins, who once billed himself as “the king of rockabilly” and “Rompin’ Ronnie,” died Sunday morning. His wife Wanda informed the Canadian Press in a telephone interview, he passed away peacefully in a hospital room in Peterborough, Ontario, after recently suffering from several health problems.
Hawkins was best known for bringing together the five-piece band that would later become “The Band”. Much of his musical career, however, is less well known. Hawkins was a performer more than a musician. His talents lie primarily in his ability to entertain on stage.
Born in 1935, the son of a schoolteacher and a barber, Hawkins lived a life on the edge of his days at Fayetteville High School. He earned up to $300 a day selling whiskey between Missouri and Oklahoma, where alcohol was banned in some counties. His “bloated” Model A Ford was designed to outrun the police when needed. He invested the money he had saved in local nightclubs and concert halls.
Hawkins formed his first band before graduating, during the early days of rock and roll. Arkansas was a musical melting pot and Hawkins had it all figured out. (See WSWS on Sleepy Labeef, also born in Arkansas in 1935.) Country music mixed with the blues to form rock and roll and “rockabilly,” which Hawkins considered his own. be. From the powerful Helena, Arkansas radio station, KFFA was born “King Biscuit Time,” which played the blues of black musicians Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Memphis Slim, Robert Nighthawk and others. At the same time, traveling minstrel shows entertained a large part of the population of the rural south.
Memphis was the hub of this musical melting pot. Record producer Sam Phillips founded Sun Records, recording the music of black and white musicians. He is famous for launching the career of Elvis Presley, who coincidentally was born just two days before Hawkins. Stax Records, a soul and blues label, had black and white musicians in its stable, was also located in Memphis. In its heyday, the label produced Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs Other artists, like R&B guitarist Chuck Berry, country star Bill Doggett (“Honky Tonk”), and Roy Orbison, who was considered a country hybrid R&B, dominated the music scene.
During a six-month stint in the military, Hawkins led a group of black musicians, calling it the Blackhawks. It was short-lived, as was his military career. After being released from service, Hawkins was still on the lookout for talent for its ever-growing lineup. He recorded several demos at Sun Studios, but they didn’t sell very well.
Competing with artists like Conway Twitty, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Hawkins was determined to get the most out of the group he assembled. Around 1957, he was looking for a drummer, when his bassist told him about a high school student named Lavon Helm from Marvell, Arkansas who, although he was a guitarist, was a natural drummer. In 1958 when he graduated he was traveling with the Hawks and became known as Levon.
Hawkins didn’t even consider himself a musician. When his younger bandmates went to Memphis to join the union, he was left saying, “Why? I don’t play anything. He was athletic and used all his abilities on stage to wow his audience. In his autobiography, “This Wheel’s On Fire”, Helm recounts the Hawk’s style of performance:
That first gig was great. Ronnie Hawkins could really work a crowd on a Friday night. I mean, he had them where he wanted them. He was tall, handsome, funny and had a beautiful voice. He was an entertainer rather than a musician. He had an instinct for the psychology of crowds and could trigger a rumble across the room if he wanted to just by flicking his wrist. It was this power he had over people. We were hitting this beat Bo Diddley, Hawk coming to the front of the stage and doing his kick, this camel ride, and the thing was taking off. Ronnie had been a professional diver as a teenager, so he could perform a front flip in a split that would amaze you. Then he would dance and pretend to liquidate Will Pop Jones, a tall, strong boy who hit those piano keys so hard they broke. God, that beat was awesome!
Conway Twitty briefed Hawkins on the opportunities in Canada. According to Helm, Ronnie told him “He says they’re hungry for a good band up there.” The nightclub scene in Toronto had enough work to keep them all busy.
As the Hawks went through several incarnations, Helm became Hawkins’ right-hand man. The group was at one time called Levon and the Hawks. A few years of wild touring in the United States and Canada followed. Morris Levy, known as the “godfather” of Roulette Records, signed them. The band recorded a few tracks under the Hawkins name, including “Mary Lou” and “Forty Days” (a reworked version of Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days”), which became minor hits.
Hawkins took his band to the Jersey Shore to perform live. Levon Helm recounts this experience:
Shore clubs attracted rock and roll fans from New York and Philadelphia. Soon we were doing backdoor business, attracting almost as well as some of the biggest artists of the time, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Teresa Brewer and Frankie Laine. It got all the talent agents excited, and soon we were being wooed by New York record labels who saw Ronnie as the next big thing. After all, that year there was a huge void in rock and roll: Elvis was in the army, Chuck Berry was in prison, Jerry Lee was out of favor for marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin, Little Richard had joined the ministry, Conway had gone to the country and Buddy Holly was dead. Some people said rock and roll was dying, but maybe Ronnie Hawkins could save the patient.
To Levon’s disappointment, Hawkins preferred Canada.
Beginning in late 1959, Hawkins took 16-year-old Canadian Robbie Robertson in tow. He commissioned his best guitarist to show him the ropes and brought him to Arkansas to experience the roots of rockabilly. When Robertson had proven himself, Hawkins later added Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and finally electronic keyboard player Garth Hudson in 1961.
The backup musicians recorded instrumental-only takes, and the band’s new producer at Roulette, Henry Glover, told Helm that they were good enough for the musicians to do on their own and that they should contact him in this event. This got the ball rolling. The band eventually worked with Bob Dylan and later became “The Band”.
Hawkins and Helm remained close for the rest of their lives. They both gave their lives to their music for as long as they could. Helm describes Hawkins in “Wheels”:
To this day, he is a good friend and a great leader, with an amazing ability to pick the best musicians and turn them into top-notch bands. He was immediately likeable, trustworthy, and naturally an artist; one of the funniest guys i have ever met. The Falcon had been to college and could quote Shakespeare when he felt like it. He was also the most vulgar and outrageous rockabilly character I have ever met in my life. He would say and do anything to shock you.
Hawkins was invited to play with The Band in their farewell performance in 1976, dubbed “The Last Waltz” and filmed by Martin Scorsese.
In 1982, Hawkins won the Canadian Juno Award for Male Country Singer of the Year. As a resident and “honorary” citizen of Canada, Hawkins has received several tributes to his lifetime musical achievements.