Ronnie Hawkins Biography

10 January 1935, Huntsville, Arkansas, USA. Hawkins, rock ‘n’ roll’s humorous storyteller says: ‘I’ve been around so long, I remember when the Dead Sea was only sick’. His father played at square dances and his cousin, Dale Hawkins, staked his own claim to rock ‘n’ roll history with ‘Suzie-Q’. Hawkins, who did some stunt diving for Esther Williams’ swimming revue, earned both a science and physical education degree at the University of Arkansas, but his heart was in the ‘chitlin’ starvation circuit’ in Memphis. Because the pay was poor, musicians went from one club to another using the ‘Arkansas credit card’ - a siphon, a rubber hose and a five gallon can. Hawkins befriended Elvis Presley: ‘In 1954 Elvis couldn’t even spell Memphis: by 1957 he owned it’.

After Hawkins’ army service, he followed Conway Twitty’s recommendation by working Canadian clubs. While there, he made his first recordings as the Ron Hawkins Quartet, the tracks being included on Rrrracket Time. In 1959, Hawkins reached number 45 on the US charts with ‘Forty Days’, an amended version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Thirty Days’. He explains, ‘Chuck Berry had simply put new lyrics to ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. My record company told me to add ten days. They knew Chess Records wouldn’t sue as they wouldn’t want to admit it was ‘The Saints’.’ Hawkins’ version of Young Jessie’s ‘Mary Lou’ then made number 26 in the US charts. With his handstands and leapfrogging, he became known as Mr. Dynamo and pioneered a dance called the Camel Walk. In 1960, Hawkins became the first rock ‘n’ roller to involve himself in politics with a plea for a murderer on Death Row, ‘The Ballad Of Caryl Chessman’, but to no avail. The same year Hawkins with his drummer, Levon Helm, travelled to the UK for the ITV show Boy Meets Girls. He was so impressed by guitarist Joe Brown that he offered him a job, but, on returning home, the Hawks gradually took shape - Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Their wild 1963 single of two Bo Diddley songs, ‘Bo Diddley’ and ‘Who Do You Love’, was psychedelia before its time. ‘Bo Diddley’ was a Canadian hit, and by marrying a former Miss Toronto, Hawkins made the country his home. He supported local talent and refused, for example, to perform in clubs that did not give equal time to Canadian artists. Meanwhile, the Hawks recorded for Atlantic Records as Levon And The Hawks and were then recruited by Bob Dylan, becoming the Band. The various incarnations of the Hawks have included many fine musicians, notably the pianist Stan Szelest (b. Buffalo, USA, d. January 1991). Hawkins had Canadian Top 10 hits with ‘Home From The Forest’ and ‘Bluebirds Over The Mountain’, while his experience in buying a Rolls-Royce was recounted in Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Talkin’ Silver Cloud Blues’.

In 1970, Hawkins befriended John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and the promotional single on which Lennon praises Hawkins’ ‘Down In The Alley’ is a collector’s item. Kris Kristofferson wrote humorous liner notes for Hawkins’ album Rock And Roll Resurrection, and it was through Kristofferson that Hawkins had a role in the disastrous movie Heaven’s Gate. Hawkins is better known for his extrovert performance in the Band’s The Last Waltz. The burly singer also appeared in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and enjoyed some amusing lines as ‘Bob Dylan’ in Renaldo And Clara; Hawkins’ segment with ‘happy hooker’ Xaviera Hollander includes the line: ‘Abraham Lincoln said all men are created equal, but then he never saw Bo Diddley in the shower.’ In 1985, Hawkins joined Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, Neil Young and several others for the Canadian Band Aid record, ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, by Northern Lights. Hawkins presented a regular Canadian television series, Honky Tonk, owns a 200 acre farm and has several businesses. It gives the lie to his colourful quote: ‘90 per cent of what I made went on women, whiskey, drugs and cars. I guess I just wasted the other 10 per cent’. He underwent surgery for a cancerous tumour in August 2002.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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