Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas-born rock and roll legend who directed the young Canadian and American musicians who later became known as the band, has passed away.
On Sunday, his wife, Wanda, said Hawkins, described in his honor as the most important rockman in Canadian history, has died at the age of 87 after an illness.
“He went in peace and looked as handsome as ever,” she told the Canadian newspaper Press.
In a tribute to Hawkins on Sunday, Robbie Robertson of the band said Hawkins taught him and his bandmates “the rules of the road.”
“Not only was he a great entertainer, a great instrumentalist and bandleader, he had an unparalleled sense of humor,” Robertson said in a statement posted to Twitter. “Funny and totally unique. Yes, God only created one of these. He will live on in our hearts forever. My deepest condolences to his family.”
Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, posted the news on Twitter saying it was “so sad to hear”.
Born in Huntsville, Arkansas on January 10, 1935 (two days after Elvis Presley was born), Hawkins was born into the show, and quickly established a reputation as a businessman in the burgeoning 1950s rock ‘n’ roll circuit.
Nicknamed “The Hawk,” he had minor hits with Mary Lou and Odessa and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the business included early rock stars such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Tweety.
“Hawkins is the only man I’ve ever heard who can compose a song as beautiful and sexy as My Gal is Red Hot sound dordid,” Grill Marcus wrote in his popular book on American music and culture, The Mysterious Train, adding that Hawkins allegedly “knows more ways Background, back rooms, and backgrounds more than any man from Newark to Mexicali.”
Hawkins, who called himself “King of Rockabilly” and “Mr. Dynamo,” had no 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 more in a country where local rock is still barely present. 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 off Rooney’s ear, or he couldn’t decide 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 was that he made us rehearse a lot,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1978. We don’t go and play until one in the morning and then we train until four in the morning.”
Supporting Hawkins from 1961 to 1963, Robertson and his friends performed rocking shows across Canada and recorded 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 Alley.
Canadian music journalist and blogger Eric Alper, writing on Sunday, said Hawkins will be sorely missed.
Alber wrote: “Ronnie Hawkins, the most important rock musician in Canadian history, has passed away at the age of 87.” “The band, Dale Hawkins, Bob Dylan, and thousands of others wouldn’t be the same without him. The music wouldn’t be the same. We’ll miss him so badly, and thank you, Hawk.”
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 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 Beatle album. For $10 billion, I couldn’t name a single song on Abby Road. Never in my life would I pick and listen to a Beatle album. Never. But John was so powerful. I admire him. He wasn’t one of those wonderful people, you know.”
Hawkins also maintained contact 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 through Who Do You Love.
Besides The Last Waltz, Hawkins has also appeared in Dylan Renaldo and Clara, the big-budget movie Heaven’s Gate and Hello Mary Lou. Dan Aykroyd narrated a 2007 documentary about Hawkins and Alive and Kickin, and featured film from another popular Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
Hawkins’ albums included Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawk “And Can’t Stop Rockin”, a notable 2001 release by Helm and Robertson and their appearances on the same song, Blue Moon in My Sign. Helm and Robertson no longer speak, having fallen out after The Last Waltz, and recording their contributions at 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 adopted 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”.