Ronnie Hawkins, Rockabilly Road Warrior, dies at 87

Ronnie Hawkins, who combined the gregarious stage presence of a natural showman and a commitment to turbocharged rockabilly music in a rowdy career that spanned more than half a century, died on Sunday. He was 87 years old.

His daughter Leah confirmed his death. She did not specify where he died or the cause, although she said he had been quite ill.

Mr. Hawkins began performing in his native Arkansas in the late 1950s and became a legendary Canadian-based road performer in the 1960s, his music forever rooted in the primal rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.

Despite all his successes, his greatest fame was not the music he produced, but the musicians he attracted and mentored. His early 1960s back-up musicians Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko went on to form the band, which backed Bob Dylan and became one of the most admired and influential bands around. of rock history.

But these musicians, like many Mr. Hawkins fans, never lost their respect for the man known as Hawk.

“Ronnie’s whole style”, Mr. Robertson once said, was for him and his band to play “faster, more violent and explosive than anyone had ever heard before”.

Ronald Cornett Hawkins was born on January 10, 1935, two days after Elvis Presley, in Huntsville, Ark. When he was 9, his family moved to nearby Fayetteville, where his father, Jasper, opened a hair salon and his mother, Flora, taught school. His musical education began at the barbershop where a shoe shiner named Buddy Hayes had a blues band rehearsing with a pianist named Little Joe.

It was there that he began to soak up the crazy quilting music of the South, with blues and jazz filtered through snatches of country and the minstrel and medicine shows that roamed the city. Soon after, something new was added, the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, which came out of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis.

Mr. Hawkins brought an element of danger to all of this – as a teenager, he had driven a hot-blooded Model A Ford running smuggled whiskey from Missouri to the dry counties of Oklahoma, earning up to $300 a day.

He started bands, enrolled in and dropped out of the University of Arkansas, joined the army in 1957, then quit the same year, intent on succeeding in the music business. While in the military, he fronted a rock ‘n’ roll band, the Black Hawks, made up of African-American musicians, a bold and generally welcome effort in the segregated South.

Demos he recorded at Sun after leaving the military fell flat, but he and his Sun session guitarist Luke Paulman formed a band with Mr. Hawkins as the athletic leader given to backflips and pear trees. Over the years his trademark became the camel walk, an early version of what became Michael Jackson’s moon walk decades later.

In 1958, country music singer Conway Twitty said American rock ‘n’ roll bands could wreak havoc in Canada. Heeding this advice, Mr Hawkins moved to a place he once said was “as cold as an accountant’s heart”. Toronto and other locations in Ontario became his home base for the rest of his career.

Mr. Hawkins liked to talk, perhaps with a few embellishments, of regular parties, fights, sex and drink of which, as he said, “Nero would have been ashamed”. But there was nothing glamorous about being a rock ‘n’ roll musician playing non-stop in bars and truck stops on a circuit centered on Ontario, Quebec and American cities like Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland.

“When I started playing rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, “you were two pay grades below a POW.”

He has built a loyal following based on his magnetic stage presence, the skill of his bands and the raw energy of his music. He had modest hits with “Forty Days”, his revised version of Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” and “Mary Lou”, a Top 30 hit on the US charts.

Later hit recordings include “Who Do You Love?” and “Hey Bo Diddley”.

Morris Levy of Mr. Hawkins’ label, Roulette Records, introduced him as someone who “moved better than Elvis, he looked better than Elvis, and he sang better than Elvis”. He saw a void he thought Mr. Hawkins could fill as the original rockabilly artists slowed down or died out. But Mr Hawkins wasn’t so sure, as he watched neat teen idols like Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell take over from their grosser ancestors.

Much to Mr. Levy’s chagrin, Mr. Hawkins chose to own the road in Canada rather than swing for the fences as a recording star in the United States, building himself a paying career by working non-stop, even s he never built an epic recording career. He also became known as a one-of-a-kind character and storyteller.

‘The Hawk had been to college and could quote Shakespeare whenever he felt like it,’ Mr Helm wrote in his autobiography, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’. “He was also the most vulgar and outrageous rockabilly character I’ve ever met in my life. He would say and do anything to shock you.

Mr. Hawkins was more than an accomplished rockabilly road warrior. In 1969, he hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono at his ranch outside Toronto on their world tour to promote world peace as the Plastic Ono Band. Bob Dylan was a lifelong fan who, in 1975, cast Mr. Hawkins to play the role of “Bob Dylan” in his experimental and widely panned film “Renaldo and Clara.”

He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film “The Last Waltz” as one of the guest stars who joined the band during the original band’s final performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on the day of Thanksgiving in 1976. (The group later reunited without Mr. Robertson.)

Mr. Hawkins growled and howled throughout a memorable performance of “Who Do You Love” with the band, good-naturedly fanning Mr. Robertson’s guitar with his cowboy hat as if to cool it off after a particularly steamy solo.

And he became a friend of fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton when he was governor, as well as a prominent part of the Arkansas entourage during President Clinton’s inauguration in 1992. Mr. Clinton also paid tribute to Mr. Hawkins in a 2004 documentary called “Ronnie Hawkins Still Alive and Kickin’.”

Mr. Hawkins played other roles, including a supporting role in Michael Cimino’s disastrous 1980 western “Heaven’s Gate,” and he grew into a respected veteran of Canadian music. He invested wisely, lived as a country squire on a large lakeside estate, and owned several businesses.

Still, he was a master at honing his bad-boy image and playing typing, including in his 1989 autobiography, “Last of the Good Ol’ Boys.”

“Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars,” he said. “Guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.”

Besides his daughter Leah, survivors include his wife, Wanda, and two other children, Ronnie Jr. and Robin, and four grandchildren.

Livia Albeck-Ripka contributed reporting.

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