Two days younger than Elvis Presley, and once among those hyped to be his heir, Madison County native Ronnie Hawkins did not become “the next Elvis” in America. But Hawkins did become king of Canadian rock ’n’ roll.
“We broke ground — we was the first rockabilly band in Canada,” Hawkins said recently.
Many picture his band, the Hawks, as being the quintet that backed Bob Dylan when he went electric. Phillips County native Levon Helm and Canadians Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson became known as the Band with hits like “The Weight.” On the first page of his 1993 autobiography, Turkey Scratch’s Helm wrote “Hawkins had molded us into the wildest, fiercest, speed-driven bar band in America.”
“I hired Garth Hudson,” Hawkins recalled, “he had the reputation of being one of those genius musicians — to teach Richard piano, plus add a little organ and sound effects to our little four-piece band,” Hawkins said.
“We were already lining them up around the blocks; we were as hot as the left cheek of Satan’s ass at that time — and that’s the hot side.”
This version of the Hawks split from Ronnie in 1963.
“I just put those young bands together,” he said. “And if you’re playing steady — every day, like we were, seven days a week most of the time — musicians get good. It’s just like any other team that plays together all the time. They get better.”
There were actually several Hawks before the five musicians who became the Band, and many after. Willard “Pop” Jones of Marianna played piano; guitarist Fred Carter Jr. was stolen from the band of Ronnie’s cousin Dale “Suzie Q” Hawkins. Franklin County native Roy Buchanan also played for both Hawkinses, and along with Carter helped teach Robertson guitar.
Ronnie Hawkins left the Roulette label in 1964. He formed Hawk Records and recorded a few singles with a new band, which subsequently also went out on its own.
Several Hawks went on to (especially Canadian) fame: guitarist Pat Travers, keyboardist Burton Cumming of the Guess Who; David Clayton Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears; and the core of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band were all Hawks. Even actress Beverly D'Angelo was once a Hawk.
“I was the farm club for [Joplin manager] Albert Grossman for about six bands,” Hawkins said. “I’d get all the bugs out of them and pick good guys that didn’t have any bad habits, get them in shape, and then Albert would hire them.”
Hawkins — a hitmaker, star of stage, TV and film — is a legend in his adopted homeland. He’s hosted his own TV shows; a 1983 TV special marked his 25th year up north. Hawkins took a memorable musical turn with his old group in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film, “The Last Waltz.” Hawkins has also acted in such notable film bombs as “Heaven's Gate” and “Renaldo and Clara,” as well as such lesser-known ones as “Prom Night II” and “One for the Money,” with John Candy and Brooke Shields.
“All I ever did was try to stick to the audience I was playing for,” Hawkins said. “I did my rockabilly shit forever, but what I would do was supplement the show with whatever was red hot.”
In summer 2002, Ronnie Hawkins was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. Recipient of several operations and government-issue medicinal marijuana, he credited both the Canadian health care system and a high school-aged Canadian boy who practiced “distance healing” for testing cancer-free two years later. A documentary on his comeback from cancer debuted on CTV last August.
Ronnie Hawkins is a footnote in U.S. rock history. But in Canada, he is comparable to a Presley or a Chuck Berry — the man who taught a nation how to rock.
Hear more about Ronnie Hawkins on this week’s “Arkansongs,” heard Fridays at 6:40 a.m. and 6:20 p.m. on KUAR-FM, 89.1 in Little Rock. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Mary Lou,” 1959
“There’s a Screw Loose,” 1963
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