Born Ronald Hawkins, 10 January 1935, Huntsville, Arkansas
Ronnie Hawkins has been hailed as the last of the original rock n rollers, but IMO he arrived a little too late on the scene to be called a true original. He was born two days after Elvis Presley, but into a middle-class, not working- class background. His mother was a teacher, his father a barber. The family moved around quite a bit, but eventually wound up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was uncle Delmar (father of Dale Hawkins) who inspired young Ronnie to become a musician. A fiddle player of no mean ability, Delmar earned up to $300 a week. Ronnie formed his first band just after high school, the first of many incarnations of the Hawks. They played weekends and Wednesdays at local clubs. At his mother's urging, Hawkins went to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, majoring in physical education. He quit in 1957, to concentrate fully on music. That year Bill Justis asked him to cut some demos for Sun Records, but none of these tapes has survived and ole Sam passed on Ronnie Hawkins. During a six-month stint in the army, Ronnie got together with a band of four black musicians. They performed as the Blackhawks. It was the experience of playing with these blues steeped musicians that finally made Hawkins realize what type of music he really wanted to play. However, a racially integrated band did not have an easy time down South in those days and eventually they split up.
One day in 1958 Harold Jenkins phoned Ronnie from Hamilton, Ontario. Jenkins, shortly to become Conway Twitty, knew Ronnie well from the Arkansas musical circuit and waxed lyrical about the work to be had in Canada. Hawkins was persuaded and Twitty's agent booked him and his new band into the Golden Rail in Hamilton. Things began to happen for Ronnie. In the spring of 1958, he recorded four sides in the Quality studio in Toronto. "Hey Bo Diddley"/"Love Me Like You Can" was issued on Quality 1827.
Word reached Morris Levy in New York that Ronnie Hawkins was a hot act in Canada and he persuaded Hawkins to sign with his Roulette label. On April 13, 1959, Ronnie and the Hawks headed on down to Bell Sound Studio to cut their first session for Roulette. The first single, "Forty Days", was a thinly disguised rewrite of Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days", and peaked at # 45 on the Billboard Hot 100. The second Roulette single, a remake of Young Jessie's "Mary Lou", did even better, reaching # 26. Next step was an excellent album that represented rockabilly's last gasp. In spite of this success, Hawkins was not prepared to forsake the lucrative circuit he was building up in Canada, for a chance of becoming the latest rock n roll sensation in the USA. He appeared on Bandstand and did some gigs in Arkansas, but his popularity in Canada (reflected in the chart placings of the Roulette singles) was much bigger. In the States, Ronnie's moment in the sun had already gone, as rock n roll was changing rapidly. He was probably two years too late to carve out a niche for himself. Roulette retained his contract until late 1963, on the basis of Canadian sales, but after "Mary Lou" there were no further US hits, in spite of some superb recordings, in particular a blistering version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" (1963).
The Hawks were never exactly the same band for long, as Hawkins sought perfection. This allied to the Southern boys starting to yearn for home and quitting (with the exception of Levon Helm), led Ronnie to concentrate on recruiting local Canadian musicians : Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. Although the Hawks became a tight unit musically, they had many conflicts with Hawkins (a strict disciplinarian) and decided to strike out on their own in the summer of 1963. In 1965 they would back Bob Dylan's move to electric rock and became The Band in 1967. The next year they recorded their first LP, "Music From Big Pink." Ronnie recruited and trained new Hawks, became a permanent resident of Canada in 1964, formed his own label (Hawk Records) and recorded some less-than-successful folk-influenced material for Yorkville Records in 1966. He returned to form in September 1969 when he went to Muscle Shoals to record an LP (simply titled 'Ronnie Hawkins') for the Cotillion subsidiary of Atlantic. A single from the album, "Down In the Alley" (an old Clovers song), became his third and last chart entry (# 75). Ronnie embarked on a 15-country, 55,000-mile world tour to promote "Down In the Alley", but all to very little avail. He made two fine LP's for Monument (1972, 1974) and has subsequently over the years recorded for various labels such as United Artists, Quality (the LP "A Legend In His Spare Time" from 1981 is worthwhile), Epic and Silver Eagle.
On the occasion of Ronnie's 60th birthday in January 1995, he gave a concert in Toronto in collaboration with The Band, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others. This is available as a CD/DVD under the title "Let It Rock". In 2002 Hawkins was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given no hope of recovery. When the news was announced that he had only three or four months to live, a filmmaker by the name of Anne Pick started documenting the last days of his life. But Ronnie made a miraculous recovery and was declared cured in 2004. Instead of documenting his death, "Ronnie Hawkins : Still Alive And Kicking" documents his psychic cure of cancer. Hawkins still lives in Canada, where his status is legendary. His finest music was made for Roulette : untamed rock n roll, accompanied by some of the best musicians available at that time. He always regarded recording as an adjunct to his main business of performing live, excelling through a combination of showmanship, slick musicianship and natural ebullience.
Official website (with biography and discography) :
Acknowledgements : Adam Komorowski (liner notes for the Sequel 2-CD), Colin Escott, Wikipedia.
Recommended listening : Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks - The Roulette Years. (Sequel NED CD 266, UK). 2 CD's, 57 tracks. Released 1994. Out of print. A good alternative is "Ronnie Rocks" (Bear Family BCD 16873). 30 Roulette tracks plus two Quality recordings from 1958. Released 2010.
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