RIP Ronnie Hawkins. ‘The Hawk’ Soared in His Own Sky.
You could say Ronnie Hawkins was the man who wasn’t Elvis Presley.
Okay, that phrase technically describes every living male on the planet. But few of the rest of us racked up as many potential parallels to Elvis as his fellow musician Hawkins, who died Saturday at the age of 87.
Hawkins just took his music career in a different direction, one that didn’t with him becoming a cultural icon and an international symbol of rock ’n’ roll.
Hawkins had a couple of modest hits in the late 1950s, remakes of Young Jessie’s “Mary Lou” and Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days,” which Hawkins extended to “Forty Days.” But for most rock ’n’ roll fans, that was where his recording career wrapped up.
He was better known for recruiting a drummer named Levon Helm into his Arkansas bar band, the Hawks, then moving the band to Canada.
“When we moved to Canada, all the Arkansas guys except Levon quit,” Hawkins recalled in a 1994 interview. “So I replaced them with Canadians.” Those Canadians would be Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, and it’s not a big spoiler to say that after that quintet broke off it became The Band, one of the great rock ’n’ roll outfits ever.
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono traveled to Canada for part two of their 1969 “Bed-In,” they first stayed at Ronnie Hawkins’ house. “They stayed a couple of weeks and then left,” Hawkins said. “And they didn’t come back.” No matter. Hawkins also hosted Bob Dylan, another guy who fronted The Band, and when Dylan made his problematic 1978 movie Renaldo and Clara, Hawkins played Dylan.
Hawkins racked up a lot of associations like that, though he said in 1994 one of his favorites was a brief encounter with the young David Foster, who went on to become a major 1980s songwriter.
“I hired him for my band,” Hawkins recalled. “But he couldn’t play rock ’n’ roll. So I fired him. He said it was because he tried to put two chords into ‘Bo Diddley.’ “
Now all this may sound pretty businesslike for a guy who built a rock ’n’ roll reputation over the years as one of the original certified wild men.
In The Last Waltz, Robertson famously remarked that Hawkins hired him by saying, “You won’t make much money, but you’ll get more [carnal female affection] than Frank Sinatra.”
The first part was true. The second part is probably unverifiable, but was pure Hawkins.
The quote nobody could resist in his obituary was “I spent ninety percent of my money on wine, women and song and just wasted the other ten percent.”
It’s a great line, and Hawkins said in 1994 that he often lived a life in his teens and early 20s that would later be romanticized as the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
It’s also true that when he married his wife Wanda, in the spring of 1962, “I stopped traveling. I decided I would spend my nights at home.” His 1994 gig in New York, he noted, “is the first time I will have done a show there in 31 years.”
Hawkins never quit music. He moved permanently to Canada and became such a pillar of Canadian music that he’s on the Canada Walk of Fame, in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and an officer in the Order of Canada.
Besides playing music over all those subsequent years, he worked with other musicians and, contrary to his great quote, invested his earnings shrewdly enough to live a very comfortable life.
He was profiled in a 2012 movie, Still Alive and Kickin’. He wrote a 1989 autobiography, Last of the Good Ol’ Boys, and he was the subject of the biography The Hawk by Ian Wallis in 1997. He had a highlight segment in The Last Waltz, growling his way through Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and clearly having a glorious time doing it. All of these projects burnished his image as a character, enough of a character that viewers and readers might wonder why he didn’t become more of a star.
Hawkins had some of that same question himself.
By the time he was a teenager, in the late 1940s, he was fronting a band that played the mix of music he found himself devouring as a child in Arkansas.
“On the radio, what we got was country,” Hawkins recalled. “But my Dad was a barber and near his shop there was a black-owned place that had a blues band. I started hearing it when I was 6 or 7, and I fell in love.
“The blues has some of the most beautiful words ever written. Listen to Jimmy Reed sing, ‘I will rob, steal, kill somebody just to get to you.’ That’s love. It just knocked me out.”
He found, however, that loving the blues didn’t mean being able to replicate blues singing. “I tried [pure] blues, but I wasn’t that good at it,” he said. “So I mixed it with country and rhythm and blues.”
He also found something else: that a lot of white folks were hearing what he heard in this exciting music that was new to them. Among other things, that made Hawkins’s band a popular attraction.
“Years later,” Hawkins said, “I ran into this 81-year-old cat who told me that when B.B. King opened his first club, he was getting one, maybe two dollars a day for his music, while I was making $5-$10 a day for copying him.”
Hawkins also had a stage act that included backflips and a “camel walk” that foreshadowed Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.
If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s because that same blend of blues, rhythm and blues and country music, plus a dynamic stage show, was what propelled Elvis Presley.
Sam Phillips of Sun Records, the first label to record Elvis, was openly hunting for a white singer who could deliver black music. He got demos from Ronnie Hawkins, before Elvis, and he didn’t respond.
“I was doing this stuff two years before there was a Sun Records,” Hawkins said in 1994. “Before Elvis could spell ‘Memphis.’ “
Hawkins said this matter-of-factly, the same way he said that his 1994 music wasn’t much different from his 1949 music.
“They call me country now,” he said, “and I don’t like that. I don’t play country. I play rockabilly.”
Nor does he mean that, he said, in a casual sense.
“It takes me years to get a band to play my music correctly,” he said. “I don’t know if very many people know when you’ve reached that level. I know.”
Some of the folks he met when he came to New York in the late 1950s to make another full push for a music career would have known. “I’d go up to the Brill Building and meet Otis Blackwell or Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman,” he said. “What a wonderful time. And remember, I was a kid from Arkansas, where we didn’t even know that a place like 42nd Street existed.”
Or, possibly, a man like Morris Levy. Hawkins spent much of his New York time working for and under Levy, a producer and label owner who was known for his love of black music and his ranking position in the Mob.
Many found working for Levy problematic, particularly when it came to receiving payments, but not Hawkins. “I heard all sort of stories about him, but I judge people by the way they treat me,” he said. “He was always fair to me. He gave me a little money and when he said he would do something, he did it. Back then, a handshake was a contract.”
Leaving New York and backing off from his immersion in the music game, Hawkins said, was not necessarily a wise financial decision.
“Levy and Albert Grossman wanted me to stay,” he said. “I was offered $3,500 a week, 52 weeks a year. A fighter has to fight, a musician has to play. But you can pick the place you do it.”
So he moved north, and said he never regretted it.
Ronnie Hawkins very likely would not have become Elvis even if Sam Phillips had jumped on his demos. Hundreds of singers with electrifying acts and striking voices never became Elvis, who had both and also had the bottle and caught the lightning.
Elvis also had to largely drop out of the world and move into his own tiny fortress, where he sometimes felt betrayed by friends and he never fully recovered from his wife Priscilla leaving him. He deteriorated physically and died at 42.
Ronnie Hawkins, who was born two days later than Elvis Presley into the middle of the same Great Depression, lived out in a world that regarded him as one of its treasured characters. He played the music “that I still love” into his 80s. He was married to Wanda for his last 60 years and two of their three children played in his bands.
Saying an ambitious musician never became Elvis suggests he or she in some way fell short. Ronnie Hawkins’s life suggests the verdict might be a little more nuanced.