Ronnie Hawkins, rockabilly road warrior, dead at 87


Ronnie Hawkins, rockabilly road warrior, dead at 87

Ronnie Hawkins, who combined the gregarious stage presence of a natural showman and a dedication to turbocharged rockabilly music in a rowdy career spanning more than half a century, died Sunday. He was 87.

His daughter Leah confirmed his death. She did not specify where he died or the cause, although she said he was quite ill.

Mr. Hawkins began performing in his native Arkansas in the late 1950s and by the 1960s became a legendary Canada-based roadhouse entertainer whose music was forever set in the original rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry was rooted.

For all his success, his greatest claim to fame was not the music he produced, but the musicians he attracted and mentored. His early 1960s backup musicians Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko formed the band that supported Bob Dylan and went on to become one of the most admired and influential bands in rock history.

But these musicians, like many of Mr. Hawkins’ fans, never lost their awe of the man known as Hawk.

“Ronnie’s whole style,” Mr. Robertson once said, was that he and his band “played faster, harder, and more explosively than anyone had ever heard before.”

Ronald Cornett Hawkins was born on January 10, 1935, two days after Elvis Presley, in Huntsville, Arkansas. When he was 9, his family moved to nearby Fayetteville, where his father, Jasper, opened a hair salon and his mother, Flora, teaches school. His musical training began in the barbershop, where a shoeshine boy named Buddy Hayes had a blues band rehearsing with a piano player named Little Joe.

There he began to absorb the crazy quilt music of the South, with blues and jazz filtered through scraps of country and the minstrel and medicine shows that roamed the city. Soon something new, the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, oozed out of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis.

Mr. Hawkins brought a certain element of danger—as a teenager, he drove a souped-up Ford Model A filled with bootleg whiskey from Missouri to the arid counties of Oklahoma and made up to $300 a day.

He put bands together, enrolled and dropped out of the University of Arkansas, enlisted in the Army in 1957 and quit that same year to make it in the music business. While in the Army, he led a rock ‘n’ roll band, the Black Hawks, made up of African-American musicians, a daring and usually welcome effort in the segregated South.

Demos he recorded at Sun after leaving the Army fell to nothing, but he and his Sun session guitarist, Luke Paulman, put together a band with Mr. Hawkins as the athletic frontman, who could do backflips and handstands loved. Over the years, his trademark became the camel walk, an early version of what decades later would become Michael Jackson’s moon walk.

In 1958, country singer Conway Twitty said American rock ‘n’ roll bands could make fortunes in Canada. Mr. Hawkins took that advice and moved to a place he once said was “as cold as an accountant’s heart.” Toronto and other Ontario locations became his home base for the remainder of his career.

Mr. Hawkins liked to talk, perhaps with some embellishment, about regular parties, fights, sex and alcohol, which he put “Nero would have been ashamed of.” But there was nothing glamorous about being a rock ‘n’ roll musician, playing non-stop in bars and roadhouses on a circuit centered on Ontario, Quebec, and US cities like Buffalo, Detroit, and Cleveland.

“When I started playing rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, “you were two pay grades below a prisoner of war.”

He built a loyal following based on his magnetic stage presence, the skill of his bands, and the raw energy of his music. He had modest hits with “Forty Days,” his remastered version of Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days,” and “Mary Lou,” a Top 30 hit on the US charts.

Subsequent successful recordings include “Who Do You Love?” and “Hey Bo Diddley”.

Morris Levy of Mr. Hawkins’ Roulette Records label described him as someone who “moved better than Elvis, looked better than Elvis and sang better than Elvis”. He saw a vacuum that he believed Mr. Hawkins could fill if the original rockabilly artists slowed down or burst into flames. But Mr. Hawkins wasn’t so sure as he watched groomed teen idols like Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell succeed their rougher ancestors.

Much to Mr. Levy’s chagrin, Mr. Hawkins chose to own the road in Canada rather than swing around the fences as a record star in the US, and built a lucrative career working non-stop, although he never achieved an epic career set up as a turntable. He also became known as a unique character and narrator.

“The Falcon was in college and could quote Shakespeare when he was in the mood,” wrote Mr. Helm in his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire. “He was also the most vulgar and outrageous rockabilly character I’ve ever met in my life. He would say and do anything to shock you.”

Mr. Hawkins was more than just the consummate rockabilly road warrior. In 1969 he hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono at his ranch outside of Toronto during their world tour to promote world peace as the Plastic Ono Band. Bob Dylan was a longtime fan who in 1975 cast Mr. Hawkins for the role of “Bob Dylan” in his experimental and largely planned film Renaldo and Clara.

He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz as one of the invited stars who joined the band at the original group’s final performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976. (The band later reunited without Mr Robertson.)

Mr. Hawkins growled and roared his way through a memorable rendition of “Who Do You Love” with the band, and good-naturedly fanned Mr. Robertson’s guitar with his cowboy hat, as if cooling it down after a particularly hot solo.

And he became a friend of fellow Arkansas native Bill Clinton when he was governor, as well as a prominent part of the Arkansas entourage during President Clinton’s inauguration in 1992. Mr. Clinton also paid tribute to Mr. Hawkins in a 2004 documentary titled “Ronnie Hawkins’ Still Alive and Kickin.”

Mr. Hawkins also played other actors, including a supporting role in Michael Cimino’s disastrous 1980 western Heaven’s Gate, and he went on to become a respected elder statesman of Canadian music. He invested wisely, lived like a country squire on a sprawling lakeside estate, and owned several businesses.

Still, he was a master at honing and typing his bad-boy image, including in his 1989 autobiography Last of the Good Ol’ Boys.

“Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars,” he said. “I guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.”

In addition to his daughter Leah, survivors include his wife Wanda and two other children, Ronnie Jr. and Robyn, and four grandchildren.

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