Ronnie Hawkins, band mentor and rockabilly star, dies at 87

Ronnie Hawkins, band mentor and rockabilly star, dies at 87

Ronnie Hawkins, a brash rockabilly star from Arkansas who became a patron of the Canadian music scene after moving north and recruiting a handful of local musicians later known as The Band, has died.

His wife Wanda confirmed to The Canadian Press that Hawkins died Sunday morning from an illness. He was 87 years old.

“He left peacefully and looked as good as ever,” she said over the phone.

Born just two days after Elvis Presley, the Huntsville native friends called “The Hawk” (He also dubbed himself “The King of Rockabilly” and “Mr. Dynamo”) was hell with a big jaw and a stocky build.

He had minor hits in the 1950s with “Mary Lou” and “Odessa” and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where performers included rock stars such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty.

“Hawkins is the only man I’ve ever heard who can make a sordid sound out of a beautiful, sexy song like ‘My Gal is Red Hot,'” Greil Marcus wrote in his acclaimed book on American music and culture, “Mystery Train”, adding that “The Hawk” was supposed to “know more back roads, back rooms and behinds than any man from Newark to Mexicali”.

Hawkins didn’t have the gifts of Presley or Perkins, but he had ambition and a sense of talent.

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto in 2015.
MovieMagic

He first performed in Canada in the late 50s and realized he would stand out much more in a country where local rock still barely existed. Canadian musicians had often moved to the United States to advance their careers, but Hawkins was the rare American to attempt the opposite.

Along with drummer and fellow Arkansan Levon Helm, Hawkins put together a Canadian backing band that included guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and bassist Rick Danko. They became the Hawks, educated at the Hawkins school of rock.

“When the music got a little too far for Ronnie’s ear,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1978, “or if he didn’t know when to come and sing, he would tell us no one but Thelonious Monk would could understand what we were playing.. But the big thing with him was that he made us rehearse and practice a lot. A lot of times we would go play until 1am and then rehearse until 4 hours.

Robertson and his friends supported Hawkins from 1961 to 1963, putting on raucous shows across Canada and recording a screeching cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” that became one of Hawkins’ signature songs.

Ronnie and Wanda Hawkins
Ronnie and Wanda Hawkins arrive at the Canadian Music Industry Awards in Toronto on March 8, 2007.
AP/Frank Gunn

But Hawkins wasn’t selling many records, and the Hawks outgrew their leader. They met Bob Dylan in the mid-60s and by the end of the decade were superstars in their own right who had renamed themselves The Band.

Hawkins, meanwhile, settled in Peterborough, Ontario, and recorded a handful of top 40 singles there, including “Bluebirds in the Mountain” and “Down in the Alley.”

It’s true he didn’t keep up with the latest sounds – he was horrified the first time he heard Canadian Neil Young – but in the late 1960s he befriended John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono. They stayed with Hawkins and his wife, Wanda, and their three children during their visit to Canada.

“At the time, I thought I was doing them a favor,” he later told the National Post. “I thought the Beatles were a lucky English band. I didn’t know much about their music. I thought Yoko was (stupid). To this day, I’ve never heard a Beatles album. For 10 billion dollars, I couldn’t name a single song on ‘Abbey Road.’ I never in my life picked up a Beatles album and listened to it. Ever. But John was so powerful. He wasn’t one of those hotshots, you know.

Ronnie Hawkins
Hawkins in 1960.
red ferns

Hawkins also kept in touch with the band and was among the guests in 1976 for the All-Star Farewell Concert which served as the basis for Martin Scorsese’s documentary “The Last Waltz”.

For a few moments he was back in charge, smiling and strutting under his Stetson hat, shouting “big time, big time” at his former underlings as they ripped “Who Do You Love”.

Besides “The Last Waltz,” Hawkins also appeared in Dylan’s “Renaldo and Clara,” the big-budget fiasco “Heaven’s Gate,” and “Hello Mary Lou.” A 2007 documentary on Hawkins, “Alive and Kickin”, was narrated by Dan Aykroyd and featured a cameo from another famous Arkansan, Bill Clinton.

Hawkins’ albums included ‘Ronnie Hawkins’, ‘The Hawk’ and ‘Can’t Stop Rockin’, a notable 2001 release for Helm and Robertson appearing on the same song, ‘Blue Moon in My Sign’. Helm and Robertson were no longer speaking, having argued after “The Last Waltz”, and recorded their contributions in separate studios.

Over time, Hawkins mentored many young Canadian musicians who went on to successful careers, including guitarist Pat Travers and future Janis Joplin guitarist John Till.

He has received several honorary awards from his adopted country and, in 2013, was named a Member of the Order of Canada for “his contribution to the development of the music industry in Canada, as a rock and roll musician , and for supporting charitable causes.

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