Ronnie Hawkins, the big, loud Southern rockabilly singer who called Canada home and helped mentor that country’s first band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died.
His wife Wanda confirmed to The Canadian Press that Hawkins died Sunday morning after a long illness. The musician known as The Hawk was 87 years old.
Hawkins didn’t make his reputation in the studio. His highest charting single in the US reached number 26 and, not being a natural songwriter, most of his recorded work consisted of covers. But his stage shows were boisterous affairs, characterized by his booming voice, humorous rhythm and acrobatic moves like his “camel ride”.
Hawkins, born and raised in Arkansas, got wind of the steady work available on the Canadian bar circuit from Conway Twitty, among others. He began filming in Ontario in 1958, and by the time he was featured in a CBC Telescope documentary nine years later, he was settled in Canada.
“You know, I don’t know anything about Canadian politics or the price of wheat or Niagara Falls,” he said in the doc. “But I do know one thing: I’m sure to dig it up here.”
Over the years, Hawkins’ band included musicians and performers who achieved their own success, including Roy Buchanan, Beverly D’Angelo, David Foster, Lawrence Gowan and Pat Travers.
But it was a specific five that would cement Hawkins’ reputation in musical lore as an ancient statesman. Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson eventually left Hawkins en masse for the United States. They supported Bob Dylan and then made their own mark as The groupfeaturing critically acclaimed albums and hits such as The night they drove Old Dixie Down, On Cripple Creek and The weight.
“We should thank Ronnie Hawkins for being instrumental in bringing us together and teaching us the ‘rules of the road,’ so to speak,” guitarist Robertson said when the band were inducted into Rock and Roll Hall. of Fame in 1994.
For reasons that have been debated – his love of Canada no doubt playing a part – Hawkins could not fully grasp the brass ring or allow the heavy hitters of the American music industry to shape his career. The larger-than-life figure seemed content to carve out a reputation north of the border.
“I brought the first blues here. No one had ever heard of Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, BB [King] or anyone in Canada,” he boasted one day, perhaps doubtfully, to music journalist Larry LeBlanc.
Hawkins won a Juno Award for Male Country Singer of the Year in 1982 and received lifetime achievement awards from the Junos in 1996 and the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) in 2007. Still retaining US citizenship, in 2014 he accepted an honorary appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
As described in Helm’s autobiography This wheel is on fire, Hawkins often had to charm the parents of a young musician to complete his band. His recruiting pitch to potential band members was less G-rated and usually included the promise that they would have more sex “than Sinatra”, albeit in less euphemistic terms.
Hawkins may not have sold millions, but he’s done well enough to reside in a sprawling, multimillion-dollar property in Stoney Lake, in the Kawarthas region of Ontario. As recently as 2016, he hosted longtime friends Gordon Lightfoot and Kris Kristofferson for a session at his home studio.
WATCH | The National interviews Ronnie Hawkins and Gordon Lightfoot:
His life has been filled with colorful experiences. He’s recorded with everyone from the great Duane Allman to The happy whore author Xaviera Hollander, portrayed Bob Dylan in Dylan’s widely filmed film Renaldo and Clara – while also acting in another notable box office flop, The Gate of Paradise – and was among the Canadian contributors to the famine charity song tears are not enough in 1985.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono invited to his farm during an extended stay in Toronto in 1969 was a favorite Hawkins story. Over the years, he’s told more than one CBC host about a pot-smoking session that included both Lennon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
True or fable? We often didn’t know with Hawkins, but he certainly performed at inauguration parties in Washington, DC, in 1993 for the first US president from Arkansas.
“If the world had more people like Ronnie Hawkins, we’d screw up less, we’d hurt less people, we’d laugh a lot more,” Bill Clinton said in the 2004 documentary. Hawkins: still alive and kicking. “I have never met another like him.”
Hawkins was born on January 10, 1935 in Huntsville, Ark. His family moved to Fayetteville when he was a child. He went to college and enlisted in the National Guard and the Army, but his main interests were mostly cars, girls, and, from the age of 12, music.
Hawkins began playing in local bars in 1953, with young Arkansan Helm joining the band about five years later. In 1959, Hawkins struck a deal with Roulette Records, leading to minor hits that year. Forty days and Mary Louand an appearance on American Bandstand.
Robertson, a 16-year-old from Toronto, joined a few weeks after that television appearance. The rest of the members of what became the band ended up in southwestern Ontario in 1961-62: Danko from Simcoe, Manuel from Stratford and the classically trained Hudson from London.
Hawkins, Helm wrote in his autobiography, “shaped us into the wildest, fiercest speed bar band in America.”
WATCH | Ronnie Hawkins remembers Levon Helm:
Hawkins preferred fast blues-based material, but tried to adapt to changing musical trends, recording folk and country albums, although these did not translate into mass success.
By mid-decade, his band was chafing at Hawkins’ control and the meager lives of the backing musicians. Hawkins also had a family life now, having met his wife Wanda at Concord Tavern in Toronto.
“We wanted to explore a deeper musicality,” Robertson told CBC in 2011. “We loved it, but we had to go find out what was around the corner.”
Hawkins traveled to San Francisco for the live swan song of the original lineup of The Band, a 1976 gig captured on screen in the iconic rock documentary The last Waltz. efficient Who do you Love?Hawkins featured with Dylan, Van Morrison and Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
Hawkins appreciated that bit of celebration and recognition, because the early 1970s hadn’t always been kind. For his ever-touring band, it had been a time of a lot of turnover. He was an avid drinker then, and those years also included a failed club project and a marijuana possession rap.
Hawkins would end up being celebrated at benefit shows himself. For his 60th birthday at Massey Hall in Toronto, performers included Danko, Helm and Hudson, as well as Sylvia Tyson and Jeff Healey. After his quadruple bypass in 2002, the same year he was honored on Canada’s Walk of Fame, a tribute concert featuring The Tragically Hip and Tom Cochrane, among others.