Ironically, one of the most influential artists in Canadian music history, who also happened to lend a hand in dozens of other artists getting their breaks, was originally from Arkansas. Ronnie Hawkins was born in Huntsville in 1935, and although his mother was a teacher and his father was a barber, he was exposed to music early, mimicking what he heard on the radio. His family moved to Fayetteville when he was 9, and fed his stage bug by performing with his uncles and aunts at gatherings on the family farm.
He later played with different groups in high school, and after graduating, made an extra buck while in the Army Reserve by assembling a band called The Black Hawks. Hawkins was actually shot at by at least one person opposed to his African American backup group during that time. After forming a new group dubbed The Hawks, he was soon touring throughout the state and into Oklahoma and Missouri.
Deciding to pursue music full time, he finished his military commitment and opened up The Rockwood Club in Fayetteville. The alumni of artists who played there included Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Conway Twitty, among other pioneers experimenting with all the new styles that were emerging. By the end of 1955 he’d moved to Memphis, where no one could catch a break until Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” a year later changed all that. Suddenly the floodgates were open, and almost every artist and group that wasn’t definitively country was branded with the rock & roll iron, or a variation of it, including the new sound gaining the old people’s ire – rockabilly.
Hawkins was a friend of Twitty, another early rockabilly rebel, who in ’58 was brought to Hamilton to play a few shows. When asked what other groups from that neck of the woods might be interested in playing in Canada, still virgin territory, Twitty told Harold Kudletts, the booking agent, about Hawkins. It wasn’t long before Hawkins had packed up his band, loaded what they could fit into a station wagon, and headed north. Their original gig at The Golden Rail was only a week long, but the impact they made spread like wild fire, leading to some shows in Toronto. Extended stays at some of the hottest clubs in town ended up as an invitation to stay permanently.
With a deal with Quality Records in hand, along with guitarist Jimmy Ray Paulman, Willard Jones on piano, and drummer Levon Helm, they headed into Kingston Road Studios in Toronto to cut some tracks. Released as The Ron Hawkins Quartet in the summer of ’58, “Bo Diddley” (argued by some as the best version ever recorded) was an instant hit, followed by “Love Me Like You Can.” Word of his wild stage shows was getting attention in the US while the singles worked their way into rotation on the airwaves, and Morris Levy of Roulette Records courted Hawkins, signing him to a five year deal. Despite his efforts to lure him back to the States where he believed they’d make the most noise, Hawkins stayed in Toronto.
Changing the bill to Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, members came and went at first. Jones grew homesick and flew the coop, and guitarist Fred Carter Jr, and Jimmy Evans on bass had been brought in for a rounder, more complete sound. The one member who didn’t stray from the nest was drummer and fellow Arkansas native Levon Helm.
“Ruby Baby,” “Forty Days” (originally called “30 Days” when Chuck Berry wrote it), the hillbilly jive complete with Sam Taylor’s ripping sax solo in “Horace,” and “One Of These Days” followed, keeping Hawkins on the air throughout most of 1959. The next single “Mary Lou” peaked in the top 30 in both Canada and the US. His self-titled debut album was also on the shelves before the end of the decade, featuring the singles to date, as well as live favourites like “Odessa,” and “What’cha Gonna Do (When The Creek Runs Dry).” More singles ensued over the next few months. “Southern Love”and “Lonely Hours” made it to his second album, MR DYNAMO.
The band was a fixture on the scene and Hawkins was quickly becoming a teen idol equaling Paul Anka‘s status. He opened his own club The Hawk’s Nest, which in turn became one of the hottest venues on Toronto’s bustling Yonge Street. In the early days between sets, the band also moonlighted down the street in the other clubs (or downstairs at Hawkins’ other club Le Coq D’Or), soaking in the different sounds, and applying them to their own repetoire.
Before 1960 was up he was also cashing in on the trendy new folk craze happening at the time. The lineups kept changing, and after putting his own spin on the deep south death penalty tune penned about a recent case in the news, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman,” THE FOLK BALLADS OF RONNIE HAWKINS followed. Mostly his intrepretations of traditional songs, the record showed his roots and versatility. Along with the single “Summertime,” it included “Brave Man” from the movie “Red Garters” soundtrack, a cover of Conway Twitty’s “The Death of Floyd Collins,” and his sole own composition, “Virginia Bride.” A young guitarist/songwriter named Robbie Robertson had also been pestering Hawkins relentlessly, sneaking on stage behind his back (literally sometimes) and pitching songs to him, and sat in on some of those recording sessions.
The earliest popular country & western was a huge part of Hawkins’ early influences, as it was for everyone in that neck of the woods at the time. The result was the self-explanatory RONNIE HAWKINS SINGS THE SONGS OF HANK WILLIAMS in ’61, which featured a dozen of Hank Sr’s most popular hits, and the only single, “Cold Cold Heart.” To get the authentic vibe, Hawkins surrounded himself with some of Nashville’s top studio players, including a young Floyd Cramer, and cut the record in Music City.
He came home and continued shuffling The Hawks’ lineup over the next few months, and cut some singles in New York through to the end of ’61. Trying to slip in an early Motown sound, the Warwick sisters – Dionne and Dee Dee, and Cissie Houston (Whitney’s mother), provided backing vocals one “Come Love,” which made the top 40 in both Canada and the US.
But by the following February, what would become the most noteable incarnation of The Hawks was set – with Helm, Robertson, Rick Danko on bass, and Richard Manuel on piano. Garth Hudson was then added on organ, and was also paid extra to teach the rest of the band how to read music. Singles continued for the next few years. followed by a new version of “Bo Diddley” with the smash b-side “Who Do You Love.
With THE BEST OF RONNIE HAWKINS album in the fall of ’63, further singles followed – including “High Blood Pressure,” “Goin’ to the River,” “Home From the Forest,” and “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” – the highest charter during this period at #8 in Canada.
But within a year, his backup band was forming a mutiny, having grown weary of not being able to spread their musical wings. While they contemplated venturing off on their own, Hawkins got in touch with pianist Stan Szelest, who’d worked with Hawkins a couple of times. One thing led to another and his new project Robbie Lane & The Disciples, was signed to Hawkins’ new label, Hawk Records, and was also hired as the ‘other’ house band… just in case. Helm and company flew the coop, and later – after a stint as Bob Dylan’s back-up group during his initial foray into electric music, renamed themselves The Band.
Hawkins became a permanent resident in 1964, and now Robbie Lane and company were actually double booking for a period -as The Disciples, as well as still working as his back-up band. Singles continued while bouncing from one genre to the next, with “Bluebirds Over The Mountain,” “Goin’ To The River” with a cover of the Willie Dixon standard “Little Red Rooster” as the flip side, “Got My Mojo Working,” and “Home From The Forest” (with the traditional country “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” as the b-side).
By early ’65 Lane and company split from Hawkins to go out on their own. But it didn’t take him long to open the revolving door once again, and for the next couple of years players came and went (including a brief return by original Hawk guitarist Fred Carter Jr as a producer), frequently accompanying him to the studios for recordings, often with mixed results. UK based Oxford Records had expressed interest in some material he was working on in Nashville in the spring of ’66, but backed out when they heard what they considered poor recordings.
Roulette meanwhile released the album MOJO MAN in the spring of ’67, basically a collection of tracks recorded from ’59 to ’64 but not released until then. It covered all the bases, from remakes of Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and his cousin Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q”, to the title track, and the bluesy grind of “Nineteen Years Old,” which featured Helm on lead vocals.
Local harmonica sensation King Biscuit Boy (real name Richard Newell) who’d played with Hawkins off and on for nearly the last year, was given the task of filling out his new back-up band. He naturally called upon his sideline project that was then called The New Ascots. By 1968 the lineup consisted of Kelly Jay (real name Blake Fordham) on vocals and piano, guitarists John Gibbard and Rheal Lanthier, and Richard Bell on keyboards. Hawkins dubbed them And Many Others, and soon ventured off to the studios to cut some tapes, and “Mary Jane” was on the airwaves that summer.
A few more live dates, even less recording sessions, and still less singles followed for the next year or so, until his back up band once again left. This time it was under less amicable circumstances than on other occasions, after a post gig drunken ruckus in Hamilton. And Many Others morphed into Crowbar.
He spent a lot of the close of the decade in a less musical, and more social role. John Lennon and Yoko Ono hung out at his spread in rural Ontario for a few days during their Love Not War peace crusade, when they also staged their famous bed-in in Toronto. He then took a train ride with them to Ottawa for their vist with the Prime Minister to talk peace and love, during which it was rumoured but never confirmed that they all smoked a big fat one with Pierre and Maggie. The close bond between the artists, who’d known each other for years, led to Hawkins acting as a world peace emmissary, during which he and another activist were arrested for waving a banner with “love not war” on it while standing on the Great Wall of China.
Once he returned home, he dropped the peace banner and starting waving the music flag again. He assembled a new backup band that centred around guitarists Dwayne Ford and Hugh Brockie, who would later go on to form Bearfoot. By this point Hawkins was playing live less, and recorded some new material in Alabama in the fall of ’69. Among the guest list of performers was Roger Hawkins (no relation) on drums and guitarist Duane Allman.
The self-titled album on Cotillion Records (with Canadian distribution from Hawk) featured fresh takes on some of his earlier hits, including “Matchbox,” “Forty Days,” and “Who Do You Love?,” as well as the traditional “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” The same year, Roulette also released a pair of compilations, THE BEST OF RONNIE HAWKINS AND HIS BAND, and ARKANSAS ROCKPILE, the latter of which only saw the light of day overseas, and both containing his earlier rockabilly hits.
He recorded in Miami for the first time in early ’71, with producer Tom Dowd and a supporting cast that saw the return of Allman on guitars and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass doing cameos. The result was THE HAWK, Charlie Rich’s Lonely Weekends,” Don Gibson’s “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles” and Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” as well as new versions of previous hits “Odessa” and “Lady From Baltimore.” The album also featured members Dwayne Ford, Hugh Brockie, and Jim Atkinson, who’d later go on to form Bearfoot.
A chance meeting with Kris Kristofferson a year later led Hawkins to sign with Monument Records. It was Kristofferson’s label at the time, and he convinced president Fred Foster to sign him. The shift back to his rock roots was the backbone of ROCK & ROLL RESURRECTION in ’72. Covers of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” and Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee” and “Maybelline” showed an inner reflection of his music, and maturity in his revisitiations of it. It also contained the original “Cora Mae,” as well as a song Kristofferson wrote for the album, “The Same Old Song.”
GIANT OF ROCK & ROLL followed nearly two years later, much in the same vein and featuring a less raucous effort than its predessor. This was captured in his cover of Gordon Lightfoot‘s “Home from the Forest” and Jesse Winchester‘s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” but stretched to cover Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” and the ‘rowdy ballad’ feel of the lone original song, “Lonely Hours,” and yet another recording of “Bo Diddley.”
A year after hanging out at a Toronto recording studio and cutting some still-unreleaed tracks with porn star Xaviera Hollander, Monument Records re-released his last two records as a double album, which started a bunch of two-record sets. He released HAWK IN WINTER in the fall of ’76, though actually recorded several years earlier.
Top 40 was becoming less frequent in the middle of a changing musical landscape, and recording a mostly folk/country fusion in Nashville wasn’t easily digested by mainstream radio. Still, critics generally regarded the cover of Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Tim Hardin’s “Lady From Baltimore,” and Dylan’s “Girl From North Country” as examples of one of the more quieter albums on the charts that year, but better creatively speaking.
That same year, he was on stage with The Band for the first time in a decade, performing with them at The Winterland Ballroom in San Fransisco for their Thanksgiving Day farewell concert. That show was filmed by Martin Scorsese. A year after his compilation record ROCKIN’ was in the stores, that show with The Band became 1978 documentary, “The Last Waltz.”
One of the most infamous moments in Canadian television history happened while Hawkins co-hosted The 1978 Juno Awards with fellow country legend Carroll Baker. The show opened with them performing a medley of their hits, when Ronnie jumped out of a classic T-Bird with “Forty Days,” his fly was open in front of an entire country.
Although he was laying back from playing a bit, he was still always finding time to record. One such incident was in ’79 when he was visiting friends back home in Arkansas. Some impromptu jamming at Tyson’s Chicken Farm in Bentonville included a reunion with King Biscuit Boy and Stan Szelest. The bulk of those recordings became his second record called THE HAWK. Released that fall, it showcased more country, and less flambouyance, and featured covers of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Elvira,” the lead-off “Shelter of Your Eyes,” and the original “Let it Rock.”
After another onslaught of greatest hits compilations began hitting the stores, his next project was A LEGEND IN HIS SPARE TIME in 1981, produced by Fred Mollin. All new covers, it was another critics’ rave for his country slant on rock standards, such as CCR’s “Travellin’ Band” and “Lodi” (which peaked at #7 on the Canadian charts), Willie Dixon’s “300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy,” and a pair from Chuck Berry.
PREMONITION followed in ’82, featuring rehashings of earlier hits, and his first live album, THE HAWK & ROCK, came out a year later. Recorded during a sold-out UK Tour a year earlier, the single “Wild Little Willy” stalled at #45 on the Canadian country charts. Roulette released the self-explanatory double album EP COLLECTION, another mix mash of his earlier hits spanning the whole genre spectrum.
His comeback album would be a more dignified returnee to The Juno Awards. Spurred on by the top 30 hit title track, 1984’s MAKING IT AGAIN album won the cross-over (again and again) legend his first trophy, as Canada’s Top Country Male Vocalist. The transformation was complete with argued as his most solid country recordings in years. All new material, for him at least, it also included the lead-off “Look Out Time,” “Patricia,” the rowdy “Good Timing Song,” and “Truck Driving Man.”
In February of ’85, he was among the over 50 Canadian names in the business who collaberatively went by Northern Lights, when they gathered in Toronto to record the African relief effort, “Tears Are Not Enough.”
In another on-rush of compilation albums and repackagings, he returned with HELLO AGAIN MARY LOU in the fall of ’87. Recorded in and around various Toronto studios, and with a helping hand from the likes of Bernie LaBarge, Blair Packham, Rick Danko‘s brother Terry on bass, and his own son Robin, it was kind of a throw back roots album that put a fresh spin on some old classics, including “Mary Lou” and “Baby Jean” and CCR’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain.”
In 1992, he performed at the inaugural party of former President Bill Clinton, one of The Hawks’ biggest fans, and a lifelong personal friend. But it was the less formal Blues Jeans Ball outside Little Rock, that he later said was the better party. Hawkins has also played for Solidarity Leader and former Polish president, Lech Walesa, and for nearly every Canadian Prime Minister since John Diefenbaker.
For his own 60th birthday party in ’95, Hawkins threw a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto. Joining him on stage throughout the night and performing on their own were Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Band, Gowan, and Jeff Healy, among many others. The house band for the night consisted of various incarnations of a who’s who list of other artists he’d worked with, or had influences on – dubbed The Rock ‘N’ Roll Orchestra. The event was released as the LET IT ROCK DVD and also featured the new studio track and video, “Days Gone By” – a sombre, self-reflective look back at one of the industry’s most celebrated stories that featured cameos from a number of other artists, earning him a Juno nomination for Male Country Artist of The Year.
Always willing to lend a hand at charitable events, he hosted a 1996 schizophrenia fundraiser in Peterborough, Ont. On that night 400 people believed Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr had both made special, unannounced appearances, but it was revealed the next day that Hawkins had in fact hired impersonators as a gag.
In the late ’90s, Hawkins also co-hosted CITY-TV’s New Years Eve Countdown from Nathan Philips Square in Toronto, around the same time he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he claimed that along with psychic healers, it was smoking good weed that ultimately cured him. While herecovered, Paul Anka, David Foster, and even President Clinton were among the people who gathered for his ‘farewell concert,’ and paid tribute to him in a filmed documentary entitled “Ronnie Hawkins – Still Alive and Kicking.”
To prove he hadn’t missed a step, he released STILL CRUISIN’ in 2002, his 27th album, and that same year became a member of the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in March. October 4 of that year was declared “Ronnie Hawkins Day” by the city of Toronto, as he was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. His pioneering contribution to the genre has also been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and in 2005, he was awarded an honorary degree from Laurentian University in Montreal.
In 2007, CARAS (The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) and SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers) honored him with the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award for the invaluable mark he’s left on Canada’s music industry.
Other famous Hawk alumni, or other artists who’ve worked extensively with Hawkins include David Clayton Thomas of Blood Sweat and Tears, actor Beverly D’Angelo (Meatloaf), Lawrence Gowan, Pat Travers, the core of Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band, Jeff Healey, Burton Cummings, Daniel Lanois, Lonnie Mack, Greg Godovitz, and David Foster, among many others.
He’s also appeared in such films as “Heaven’s Gate” with his friend Kris Kristofferson, played the role of Bob Dylan in “Renaldo and Clara,” “Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II,” “One More Time” with the late John Candy, and “Snake Eater” with Lorenzo Lamas, where Hawkins played several roles and also contributed to the soundtrack. In the early ’80s, he also hosted his own short-lived weekly television variety show, “Ronnie Hawkins’ Honky Tonk.”
- With notes from Terry Danko, Ray Harris, Ronnie Hawkins