Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly rock star from Arkansas who became a patron of the Canadian music scene after moving north and recruiting a handful of local musicians who later became known as the band, has passed away.
His wife, Wanda, confirmed to the Canadian press that Hawkins died Sunday morning after an illness. He was 87 years old.
“He went in peace and looked as handsome as ever,” she said by phone.
Born just two days after Elvis Presley, the original Huntsville Buddies were called Hawk (he also called himself “King of Rockabilly” and “Mr. Dynamo”) a hellish buff with a big jaw and buxom build.
He had minor successes in the 1950s with “Mary Lou” and “Odyssey” and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which featured early rock stars such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Tweety.
Grill Marcus wrote in his popular book on American music and culture, The Mysterious Train, “Hawkins is the only man I’ve ever heard who can compose a song as sweet and sexy as the sound of ‘My Gal is Red Hot’.” Hawke was alleged to “know more back roads, back rooms, and backyards than any man from Newark to Mexicali”.
Hawkins didn’t have Presley or Perkins gifts, but he had ambition and an eye for talent.
He first sang in Canada in the late 1950s and realized that he would stand out much more in a country where local rock music barely existed. Canadian musicians often moved to the United States to advance their careers, but Hawkins rarely attempted the opposite.
With drummer and fellow Arkansan Levon Helm, Hawkins formed a Canadian backing group that included guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and guitarist Rick Danko. They became Hawks, and were educated at the Hawkins School of Rock.
“When the music got a little bit out of Ronnie’s ear,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1978, “or he couldn’t tell when to sing, he was telling us that no one but Thelonious Monk could understand what we were playing.” But the important thing with him is that he made us train and train a lot. We would often go and play until 1 am and then train until 4 am. “
Robertson and his friends supported Hawkins from 1961 to 1963, performing rock-and-rolling across Canada and recording a howling cover of Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love that became one of Hawkins’ signature songs.
But Hawkins wasn’t selling many records and the Hawks had outdone their leader. They were associated with Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s and by the end of the decade had become single stars who renamed themselves the band.
Meanwhile, Hawkins settled in Peterborough, Ontario, and had a handful of top 40 bachelors there, including “Bluebirds in the Mountain” and “Down in the Alley.”
Admittedly, he didn’t keep up with the latest sound – he was horrified the first time he heard Canadian Neil Young – but in the late 1960s he became friends with John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. They stayed with Hawkins, his wife Wanda, and three children while they were visiting Canada.
“At that very 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 (ridiculous). To this day, I’ve never heard of a Beatles album. For $10 billion, not a single song on Abby Road can be named Never in my life had I picked a Beatle album, listened to it. Never. But John was so powerful. I loved him. He wasn’t one of those wonderful people, you know.”
Hawkins also stayed in touch with the band and was among the guests in 1976 for the All-Star Farewell Party that was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s documentary “The Last Waltz”.
For a few moments he’s back in power, smiling and evaporating under Stetson’s hat, calling out “big time, big time” to his ex-boyfriends as they tear up “whoever you love”.
Besides “The Last Waltz,” Hawkins has also appeared in Dylan’s “Renaldo and Clara,” the big budget failures “Heaven’s Gate” and “Hello Mary Lou.” A 2007 documentary about Hawkins was narrated by Dan Aykroyd called “Alive and Kickin”, and the film featured another famous Arkansan figure, Bill Clinton.
Hawkins’ albums included “Ronnie Hawkins,” “The Hawk,” and “Can’t Stop Rockin,” the notable 2001 release of Helm and Robertson that featured on the same song, “Blue Moon in My Sign.” Helm and Robertson no longer speak, having fallen out after “The Last Waltz,” and recorded their contributions to separate studios.
Over time, Hawkins has mentored several young Canadian musicians who have gone on to successful careers, including guitarist Pat Travers and future guitarist Janis Joplin, John Tell.
He has received numerous honorary awards from his adoptive country, and in 2013 he was selected as a member of the Order of Canada “for his contributions to the development of the music industry in Canada, as a rock and roll musician, and for his support of charitable causes.”