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FAYETTEVILLE — Robbie Robertson called it “kill music.” It just kept “coming at you,” he said, pounding away at your cares and troubles.
Ronnie Hawkins, who paved the way for its growth, simply called it “racket” (as in noise). Then he practically assaulted the customers who came to hear him with backflips, snarling vocals and outrageous humor.
The rock ’n’ roll that grew out of the Ozarks captured the spirit of the hills in an entirely different way from the energetic style that emerged from the mountains of Appalachia. It was in many ways fiercer, more alive, more modern and more vital.
Altogether, it constituted a variation of the time-honored tradition of rock ’n’ roll as a supercharged combination of country music and blues. But that was only a polite way of saying “white” and “black” music. American musicians had been freely mixing the two for decades, if not centuries, before rock arrived, especially in the South. Nevertheless, there was something unusually exciting about the rock ’n’ roll that sprouted up in the Ozarks, something that reflected the community that produced it.
Hawkins was proof of that. He could bowl over an audience with sheer bombast. He wasn’t a picker or a lonesome balladeer. He was a born showman, an ex-moonshine driver, an amateur boxer, a gymnast and a comic vulgarian who could and did eventually charm presidents, record executives, prime ministers and Hollywood moguls.
A self-styled rockabilly legend, Hawkins said: “If I knew then what I know now, I would have made Elvis my roadie.”
However, it was his musical attack that set him apart. I walked into the Fayetteville High School gymnasium one warm evening in 1960 and heard Hawkins and his band the Hawks playing “Farther on up the Road,” a perennially popular blues hit recorded most notably by Bobby “Blue” Bland. It was the first time I’d heard rock ’n’ roll live and I’ve been following the sound of it ever since, searching for the same electricity I felt that night.
I found its cousins, too, a hundred times over in San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, New England, the Carolinas and Memphis, among other places. But the kind of music Hawkins was playing generated in me a conviction that the key ingredient in his musical recipe was “country,” whether country in the sense of mountaineers’ string bands or the country blues of countless Southern wanderers. Hawkins was playing irreverent rockabilly, a particularly exotic variety of it — rockabilly that grew out of the Ozarks plus the Delta farmlands of Mississippi and Arkansas. It was and still is a special flavor.
Now I’m much farther up the road. So is Hawkins, who turned 71 on Jan. 10, and so are those who, along with Hawkins, helped carve out the Ozark/Delta hybrid style — people such as John Tolleson, who despite Hawkins’ broader fame had the most popular band in Fayetteville when he was young, the Cate Brothers, who remain a quintessential factor in Northwest Arkansas music; and Randy Stratton, whose father Dayton Stratton was Hawkins’ business partner and an indispensable element in the development of rock in these hills.
Categorizing the music that flourishes around Fayetteville is easy: I call it high-country blues or hillbilly blues. But that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. In a sense it represents the bedrock of alternative country. It’s bold and individualistic. But it has a rock ’n’ roll heart, and rock ’n’ roll changed everything, including the performers who created it, the promoters who hustled it and the fans who heard it and loved it.
John Tolleson said it best:
“People today don’t realize the impact that music had. It was like somebody put a wall down. The old music stopped here. The new music started here.”
When rock ’n’ roll arrived, you either loved it or you hated it. There wasn’t much in between.
“A lot of guys didn’t like it,” Tolleson said. “But the first time I heard rock ’n’ roll, I knew that was for me.”
Tolleson even recalled the moment he got that feeling.
I started to answer for him.
“It was when Bill Haley and the Comets sang ‘Rock Around the Clock’ over the titles of that movie …” I said.
He finished my sentence for me:
“ ‘Blackboard Jungle.’ ”
That was the name of the movie.
Elvis Presley has been so often credited as the commercial avatar of rock ’n’ roll (and he was, in terms of pure box-office appeal) that the music’s long gestation period is often overlooked. Elvis grabbed the headlines. His manager, Col. Tom Parker, made sure of that. But rock ’n’ roll had been there all along both in the Ozarks, where it flourished in Hawkins’ hell-raising country, and in the Delta blues that Levon Helm of the Hawks and later The Band grew up listening to in the cotton fields near Helena. The combination of rhythm-and-blues and supercharged country covers that brought Elvis his first taste of fame at Memphis’ Sun Records was nothing new to Hawkins.
“Those were 1940s songs,” Hawkins said. “Songs by people like Lloyd Price. Muddy Waters had some stuff out there. Ray Charles was already a name … but I don’t know if he was with Atlantic (the label that brought him to national prominence) then. Hell, I sang some of those songs before Elvis did.”
Hawkins, always the joker, got off to a rugged start, but he developed into the pre-eminent exponent of Northwest Arkansas rockabilly. By the start of the 1960s, he was competing head-to-head with Tolleson (among others) in a semi-rural loop that stretched from Fayetteville to Oxford, Miss., back through the Arkansas Delta to worn-down towns like Osceola and on to Dallas, then swung north again through Oklahoma to Tulsa and back to Fayetteville. At that point, both Hawkins and Tolleson had come a long way from the mid-’50s, when they first started in earnest.
“The competition was rough in them days,” Hawkins said. “Even B.B. King couldn’t get into the clubs in Memphis and he was playing blues.”
During that period, Hawkins said, “A hit blues record sold 10,000 copies and you couldn’t get played on anything except those little 75-watt stations that went into the black communities.”
So Hawkins scrambled for the gigs he could get. He played joints in the Delta that were so mean, as he often described them, that “you had to puke twice and show your razor before they’d let you in.”
But Hawkins was game for almost anything, and he first staked out the Northwest Arkansas area that was his home as his own turf. He and his friend Dayton Stratton, who Hawkins met when he was in eighth grade, eventually built a solidly durable rock ’n’ roll enclave around Fayetteville and eastern Oklahoma. In fact, Stratton, who died in a plane crash in 1974, has been succeeded by his son, Randy, who currently oversees the Stratton Entertainment Group that his father pioneered. The Stratton group is currently celebrating its 50th year in the music business.
Rock ’n’ roll reached to the heart of the heart of the country — to Arkansas and the Ozarks. It was in turn transported to Canada by Hawkins and others, notably Conway Twitty, who was known in the 1950s by his real name as rocker Harold Jenkins. Was it simply the hypnotic spell of the music itself — the beat, as the preachers defined it and condemned it — or was it the spirit of those who embraced it that made it so widely popular? The Band, which Hawkins assembled as one of his ever-changing backup groups he called the Hawks, eventually played for the entire world.
When Hawkins was young, he’d commandeer an old gas station on Dickson street for rehersals.
“We’d unplug their outside Coke machine and plug in our instruments,” Hawkins said. “They had the warmest Cokes in town.”
And, pretty soon, Hawkins and Tolleson had the hottest bands in town.
“We were too young to get in so we used to stand outside and listen, sort of ‘through the fan,’ ” Ernie Cate said.
That’s the way Ernie, whose brother Earl plays guitar to his keyboards in the Cate Brothers band, remembers the long-gone Rockwood Club. A roadhouse on the south end of Fayetteville, the Rockwood was owned by Hawkins and managed by Stratton. A gentlemanly man and a snappy dresser, Stratton was nevertheless a formidable presence who maintained strict decorum.
“He lost his mom at 15,” his son, Randy, said. “Then one day he came home and found the place cleaned out and his father gone so he hitchhiked from Whittier, Calif., to Elkins, Ark. That’s where his grandparents lived.”
After graduating from Fayetteville High, Stratton Sr. served in the armed forces in Korea. When rock ’n’ roll came in, he was ready.
“He just always wanted to run a club,” Randy Stratton said.
First, he operated the Tee Table in Fayetteville and later the Shamrock Club (which previously was the Bubble Club and afterward was Mhoon’s 71 Club). Being longtime pals, Stratton and Hawkins were a natural pair, rough and ready — and so were the crowds. Still, Stratton knew how to handle them.
“He was a tough, good-lookin’ cat,” Hawkins said, “and he could fight. He didn’t look like it but when he was about 185 pounds, he was a hell of a fighter.”
Eventually, Stratton expanded his business successfully into Oklahoma. But he was at first celebrated chiefly around Fayetteville for importing rock ’n’ rollers with big-time reputations: young Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Roy Buchanan among the best of them. Fledgling Tulsa rocker Leon Russell (then known by his real name, Leon Bridges) played at the Rockwood while Dayton managed it.
Ernie Cate said, “The first time I saw [Dayton], I thought he was a musician. He had that hair all slicked back and he looked like one of those rockabillies.”
Actually, Dayton Stratton was more or less an honorary rockabilly. He demanded respect and he got it.
“He was an amateur magician,” Randy said. “He used to do magic tricks.”
Nobody did more for rock ’n’ roll in Northwest Arkansas, it’s safe to say, than Dayton. Plus, he kept things peaceable by his sheer patience and, when necessary, with his fists.
“[Former Sheriff] Hollis Spencer said ‘You couldn’t teach what he [Dayton] knew. He was born with it,’ ” Randy Stratton said.
Hawkins, known throughout Canada as the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, came appropriately enough from Hawkins Holler (or Hawkins Holler Creek, depending on your source) in Madison County, east of Fayetteville. He and his family moved to Fayetteville when he was 9 years old.
“My whole career started in 1952,” Hawkins said.
More to the point, Hawkins had been exposed to the basics of black music as a kid by Buddy Hayes, a local musician and shoeshine man whom Hawkins recalls as “The Godfather of the Holler.” Hayes’ “holler” was in Fayetteville and it was usually referred to in its entirety as Nigger Holler. In any event, Hawkins and Hayes became lifelong friends and when Hawkins later served a stint in the Army at Fort Sill, he fronted an all-black band called the Blackhawks.
After his discharge, Hawkins said, “I gave myself 90 days to make the big time. Then I took off for Memphis. Some Sun sessionmen were starting a band down there and I told everybody they wanted me to front it! Well, it took me about three days to get there in my old roadster. The roads were gravel then. By the time I got there, the band had broken up because they couldn’t decide who was gonna run it for a few extra bucks a week.”
That’s how Hawkins wound up performing in the Delta.
“Hell, I couldn’t go home,” he said. “I’d told everybody I was going to Hollywood to be a star!”
It took more than 90 days but Hawkins finally made it. He signed a record deal with the Roulette label’s “Big Mafioso” Morris Levy and, before long, he was a familiar TV personality, making appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “American Bandstand.” He also recorded two hit singles for Roulette: “40 Days” and “Mary Lou,” the latter selling a reported 750,000 copies.
The Hawks, by this juncture, consisted of pianist Will “Pop” Jones, guitarist Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman and drummer Helm, who went on to anchor The Band. But it was 1959 and rockabilly was fading. So was the group.
Paulman and Jones “both went home and got married,” Hawkins said. “I lost more good musicians because they knocked up 14-year-old girls than just about any other way. They figured it was better to get married than go to jail.”
That’s when Hawkins and Helm began recruiting the four Canadians who (along with Helm) finally made up four-fifths of The Band: guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson. According to Helm, Robertson was among the first to make a commitment. He rode buses from Ontario to Arkansas, and Hawkins and Helm picked him up at the bus station in Fayetteville.
It was an early version of this group that I first encountered. But, even then, they were sensational and they played more blues than any band I’d ever heard. That made them distinctive, too.
There were hard times, naturally. Hawkins often testified that he was the only rock ’n’ roller who was “onstage belchin’ up gasoline through chapped lips.” He carried what he called “an Arkansas credit card” — a five-gallon gas can and a siphon hose. The customers at his gigs often paid for their fun in more ways than they knew. While they were inside waiting for him, he was outside in the parking lot draining their cars’ fuel tanks.
Ernie and Earl Cate graduated from Springdale High School, a few miles north of Fayetteville, in 1960. Like almost everyone else in the region, they had grown up with a musical awareness.
“We just liked the music,” Ernie said. “Our dad took us around to square dances. We played a little in town contests and things like that. Eventually, we started doing these Everly Brothers songs.”
The Cates joined with singer Ken Owens to form Ken Owens and the Del-Rays in the early ’60s. Through Owens they met Hawkins and in 1965 they took their act on the road, to Tony Mart’s famous club in Summers Point, N.J. They landed a recording contract with Asylum in 1975 and toured nationally in support of two albums they made for that label.
But home was where their loyalties were and they’ve stayed close to Northwest Arkansas for the better part of 40 years.
“I remember Ronnie [Hawkins] and Levon [Helm] trying to talk us into going to Canada in the ’60s,” Earl Cate said. “But we told them we were too young to go.”
Still, he said, he learned a lot about playing guitar from Hawkins’ one-time ace picker, Fred Carter Jr.
“He used to bend the strings and I didn’t know how to do that,” Earl Cate said. “This was before they made custom strings. I strung my guitar the way he did, though, with a banjo string on the bottom. That’s how I started doing it.”
The first club the group played was the Rockwood, Earl said, and he still remembers Dayton Stratton for his efficiency and his way with the customers.
“He was such a go-getter,” Earl said. “And he would take just so much. Once you crossed that line and he lost it, well …”
Well, there was no stopping him then. Helm recounts in his autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” how Stratton hit one man so many times that the man couldn’t fall forward because each blow would knock him back on his feet.
The Cate Brothers are an Arkansas institution now, although they’re hardly ready for a museum. They’re constantly playing festivals, at clubs, in the parks, pretty much wherever they choose. To them, Northwest Arkansas rock ’n’ roll is just a natural sound. It’s peculiarly original, yes, but they can’t really explain it.
“Our influence is from Memphis, the Delta,” Ernie said. “We just kind of followed in the footsteps of Hawkins and the others who came before us.”
Earl added, “I feel like Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks influenced most of the bands around here. I remember when we were playing six nights a week in a club in Joplin. The songs on the jukebox up there were a lot different than what was down here and that’s not very far away. I guess it was just the kind of territory it came out of that made this music a little different.”
“I just hated John Tolleson,” Hawkins said. “I told him once ‘You can sing, you can play and you can write.’ I just hated him.”
Tolleson responded later, “It sounds like Ronald is in fine form.”
Truth is, Tolleson said, “I still call him [Hawkins] up once in a while just to give him a hard time.”
It’s a form of mutual respect the two have for each other. Hawkins remembers Tolleson (whose souped-up version of the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” was a big favorite wherever he played) as a competitor, a colleague and, probably, as a brother of the road. The same is true of Tolleson. He and Hawkins attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville together and they’re anything but enemies. But they’re almost exact opposites in their personalities.
Tolleson, who has had a corporate career, works now in a white-collar job in the development department on the UA campus. His view of Hawkins is tempered by the outrageousness that Hawkins has encouraged in everyone since he came out of Hawkins Holler: coarse, humorous boisterousness leavened by an inordinate amount of entertainment value anytime, anyplace.
“Hawkins used to say things to these coeds on campus when I was with him that would just make me cringe,” Tolleson said.
Then he laughed.
“That was all a long time ago,” he said. “But talking about it sure is fun.”
Maybe the reason for that is that the music was fun. It was more innocent, no-holds-barred. It was spontaneous and it was new. Plus, it embodied the natural blending of Helm’s hardcore Delta blues and Hawkins’ raunchy country funk. Helm and The Band went on to change American music in a profoundly democratic way. The Band’s songs sound as if they came somehow out of a past that really existed but which no one had chronicled, the everyday past of hard work and trouble, corn whiskey and family feuds. The Band made the hand-me-down past sound alive in a way that no other rock ’n’ roll group ever did because the past they sang and played about was real. You could feel it in your bones.
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