From rockabilly to country, to rock and bluegrass, to blues and R&B, Ronnie Hawkins lived one of the most legendary lives in popular music, with an influence that spanned borders, and eventually continents until it went around the world and back again, leaving a legacy of memorable song performances, and perhaps most notably, an alumni from his backing band that is virtually unparalleled in all of music.
Ronnie Hawkins was born two days after Elvis on January 10, 1935 in the small town of Huntsville, Arkansas. He formed his first and roll band while in college called The Hawks, which touring throughout Arkansas and rock states. Hawkins also opened a venue called the Rockwood Club in Fayetteville where artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and then rockabilly performer Conway Twitty would perform right as rock and roll was coming into prominence. Ronnie’s cousin Dale Hawkins was also a rockabilly performer, and wrote the iconic song “Suzie Q.”
In such a crowded field, and with the wild popularity of Elvis and others, Ronnie Hawkins found it hard to distinguish himself in the United States. So on the suggestion of Conway Twitty, he went to tour Canada in 1958, and this is where he found his place in music, playing a now legendary show at the Golden Rail Tavern in Hamilton, Ontario that set his career in motion, and by 1964, The Hawk was a permanent resident of Canada.
It was his legendary renditions of rock, rockabilly, and blues classics such as “Who Do You Love” by Bo Diddley, “30 Days” (that he turned into “40 Days”) by Chuck Berry, and his cousin’s “Suzie Q” that had crowds going wild. The electric energy Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks brought to the stage made them unique, and earned Ronnie nicknames such as “Mr Dynamo” and “Rompin’ Ronnie.” Uninhibited by the more rigid culture of the United States, and bringing an energy that would later be attributed more to punk music, Ronnie Hawkins made his mark.
But the way many, if not most people know and remember Ronnie Hawkins is how he nurtured some of North America’s most important musicians and songwriters over the years, working as a de facto talent scout, seeing the potential in other musicians, and giving them an opportunity that could allow them to pursue music at a grander scale. The Hawks was a proving ground, and this happened most iconically with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm, later known as The Band.
The eventual members of The Band were not Ronnie’s first incarnation of The Hawks. It was first filled with guys from Arkansas, including guitarist Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman. But when Hawkins moved to Canada, everyone quit, except for the drummer and fellow Arkansas native, Levon Helm, who saw and shared the Hawkins vision. Slowly but surely, The Band members slowly came on board, with Robbie Robertson joining next, initially as a bass player in early 1960 before moving to guitar, and with Garth Hudson joining last in late 1961.
Of course in late 1963, The Band would move on to do their own thing, and eventually back Bob Dylan as he notoriously went “electric.” But they weren’t the only famous musicians to do time in The Hawks. Buffalo, NY musician Stan Szelest of Stan and the Ravens also was in The Hawks, and would later collaborate with his former bandmates in The Band as an auxiliary piano/keyboard player. Canadian rocker Pat Travers also started in The Hawks in the 1970’s, after Ronnie noticed him in an Ontario nightclub and recruited him.
Even though the Ronnie Hawkins influence went international, he remained loyal to Canada and Ontario for supporting his career so fervently early on, and Canada embraced him as one of their own. And even though rock and rockabilly is what Ronnie Hawkins will be best known for, in the 70s and 80s he embraced country music more and more, charting multiple Top 40 country hits in Canada, including his version of John Fogerty’s (Stuck In) Lodi ,” which went to #8 in 1981.
Ronnie Hawkins has received countless accolades for his accomplishments, including induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Walk of Fame, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, though induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, USA has yet to happen.
It was announced late Saturday evening (5-28), that Ronnie Hawkins had been taken off of life support. According to reports, he passed away at 11:25am EST Sunday, May 29th the age of 87.