TORONTO (AP) — Ronnie Hawkins, the brash rockabilly star from Arkansas who became a patron of the Canadian music scene after moving north and hiring a handful of local musicians later known as the Band, has died.
His wife Wanda confirmed to The Canadian Press that Hawkins died Sunday morning after an illness. He was 87.
“He left peacefully and looked as handsome as ever,” she said by phone.
Born just two days after Elvis Presley, friends from Huntsville nicknamed “Hawk” (he also called himself “King of Rockabilly” and “Mr. Dynamo”) was a rambunctious bully with a large jaw and stocky build.
He had minor hits in the 1950s with Mary Lou and Odessa, and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas where early rock stars such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Conway Twitty performed.
“Hawkins is the only man I’ve ever heard who can make a beautifully sexy song like ‘My Gal is Red Hot’ disgusting,” Greil Marcus wrote in his acclaimed book on music and American culture, Mysterious train”, adding that “The claim is that Hawke “knows more back roads, outbuildings and nooks and crannies than any man from Newark to Mexicali.”
Hawkins didn’t have the gift of Presley or Perkins, but he had ambition and talent.
He first performed in Canada in the late 50s and realized that he would stand out much more in a country where homegrown rock was still almost non-existent. Canadian musicians often moved to the US to advance their careers, but Hawkins was one of those rare Americans who tried to do the opposite.
With drummer and colleague from Arkanzan Levon Helm, Hawkins assembled a Canadian backing band that included guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and bassist Rick Danko. They became the Hawkins, educated at the Hawkins School of Rock.
“When the music got too far for Ronnie’s ears,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1978, “or he couldn’t tell when to start singing, he would tell us that no one but Thelonious Monk could understand what we were playing. . But the main thing with him was that he made us rehearse and practice a lot. Often we would go and play until one in the morning, and then we would rehearse until four.”
Robertson and his friends supported Hawkins from 1961 to 1963, putting on raucous shows across Canada and recording a howling cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”, which became one of Hawkins’ signature songs.
But Hawkins didn’t sell many records, and the Hawks outgrew their leader. They met Bob Dylan in the mid-60s and became superstars by the end of the decade, renaming themselves the band.
In the meantime, Hawkins settled in Peterborough, Ontario, where he had several top 40 singles, including “Bluebirds in the Mountain” and “Down in the Alley”.
Admittedly, he did not follow the latest sounds – he was horrified when he first heard the Canadian Neil Young – but in the late 1960s he became friends with John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. They stayed with Hawkins, his wife Wanda, and three children while they were in Canada.
“At the time, I thought I was doing them a favor,” he later told the National Post. “I thought the Beatles were an English band that got lucky. I didn’t know much about their music. I thought Yoko (silly). Until now, I have never heard a single Beatles album. For $10 billion, I couldn’t name a single song on Abbey Road. I’ve never picked up a Beatles album in my life and listened to it. Never. But John was so strong. I loved him. You know, he wasn’t one of those hotheads.”
Hawkins also kept in touch with the group and was among the guests at the 1976 All-Star farewell concert that formed the basis of Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz.
For a few moments, he was in charge again, grinning and pacing around under his Stetson hat, yelling “big time, big time” to his former underlings as they vomited “Who do you love.”
In addition to The Last Waltz, Hawkins also starred in Dylan’s Renaldo & Clara, the big-budget flop Heaven’s Gate, and Hello Mary Lou. The 2007 documentary about Hawkins, Alive and Well, was narrated by Dan Aykroyd and featured a cameo appearance by another famous Arkansatian, Bill Clinton.
Hawkins’ albums included “Ronnie Hawkins”, “The Hawk” and “Can’t Stop Rockin'”, a 2001 release notable for Helm and Robertson appearing on the same song “Blue Moon in My Sign”. Helm and Robertson no longer spoke, having quarreled after The Last Waltz, and recorded their parts in different studios.
Over time, Hawkins became a mentor to many young Canadian musicians who went on to successful careers, including guitarist Pat Travers and future Janis Joplin guitarist John Till.
He has received several honorary awards from his adopted country, and was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2013 for “his contribution to and support of the music industry in Canada as a rock and roll musician.” charitable deeds.
Associated Press National Writer Hillel Italy contributed to this story.
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