Ronnie Hawkins, the band’s mentor and rockabilly star, has died aged 87

Ronnie Hawkins, a brash Arkansas rockabilly star who became a promoter of the Canadian music scene after moving north and recruiting a handful of local musicians who later became known as the band, has died.

His wife Wanda confirmed to The Canadian Press that Hawkins died on Sunday morning after falling ill. He was 87.

“He left peacefully and he looked as good as ever,” she said over the phone.

Born just two days after Elvis Presley, the Huntsville friend named “The Hawk” (he also called himself “The King of Rockabilly” and “Mr. Dynamo”) was a big-jawed, burly physique hell-raiser.

In the 1950s he had minor hits with “Mary Lou” and “Odessa,” and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas that hosted such early rock stars as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty.

“Hawkins is the only man I’ve ever heard make a nice sexy song like ‘My Gal is Red Hot’ sound shabby,” Greil Marcus wrote in his acclaimed book on music and American culture, Mystery Train, adding : “The Hawk” is said to know “more back streets, back rooms and backs than any other man from Newark to Mexicali”.

Hawkins didn’t have the gifts of Presley or Perkins, but he did have ambition and an eye for talent.

Ronny Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto in 2015.

First performing in Canada in the late ’50s, he realized he would stand out far more in a country where native rock barely existed. Canadian musicians had often relocated to the United States to further their careers, but Hawkins was the rare American to attempt the opposite.

With fellow Arkansan drummer Levon Helm, Hawkins assembled a Canadian backing group that included guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and bassist Rick Danko. They became the Hawks, educated at the Hawkins School of Rock.

“When the music went a little too far for Ronnie’s ear,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1978, “or he couldn’t tell when to sing, he told us that no one but Thelonious Monk could understand what we were playing.” But the great thing about him was that he let us rehearse and practice a lot. We often played until 1 a.m. and then rehearsed until 4 a.m..”

Robertson and his friends supported Hawkins from 1961 to 1963, throwing wild shows across Canada and recording a howling cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” which became one of Hawkins’ best-known songs.

Ronnie and Wanda Hawkins
Ronnie and Wanda Hawkins arrive at the Canadian Music Industry Awards March 8, 2007 in Toronto.
AP/Frank Gunn

But Hawkins didn’t sell many records and the Hawks outgrew their leader. They joined forces with Bob Dylan in the mid-’60s and were superstars in their own right by the end of the decade, renaming themselves the band.

Hawkins, meanwhile, settled in Peterborough, Ontario and had a handful of Top 40 singles there, including “Bluebirds in the Mountain” and “Down in the Alley.”

Admittedly he wasn’t up to speed on the latest sounds – he was horrified when he first heard Canadian Neil Young – but in the late 1960s he became friends with John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. They stayed with Hawkins and his wife Wanda and three children while they visited Canada.

“At the time I thought I was doing them a favor,” he later told the National Post. “I thought the Beatles were a lucky English group. I didn’t know much about their music. I thought Yokos was (stupid). To this day I have never heard a Beatle album. For $10 billion I couldn’t name a single song on Abbey Road. I’ve never picked up a Beatle album and listened to it in my life. Never. But John was so powerful. i liked him He wasn’t one of those hotshots, you know.”

Ronny Hawkins
Hawkins in 1960.
red ferns

Hawkins also stayed in touch with the band, and in 1976 he was a guest at the All-Star farewell concert that formed the basis of Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz.

He was back in charge for a few moments, grinning and strutting around under his Stetson hat, shouting “big time, big time” to his former subordinates while they broke through “Who Do You Love.”

In addition to The Last Waltz, Hawkins has also appeared in Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara, the big-budget fiasco Heaven’s Gate, and Hello Mary Lou. A 2007 documentary about Hawkins, Alive and Kickin, was narrated by Dan Aykroyd and included a cameo by another famous Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

Hawkins’ albums have included “Ronnie Hawkins”, “The Hawk” and “Can’t Stop Rockin”, a 2001 release notable for Helm and Robertson singing “Blue Moon in My Sign” in the same song appeared. Helm and Robertson stopped speaking after their falling out after “The Last Waltz” and recorded their contributions in separate studios.

Over time, Hawkins mentored numerous young Canadian musicians who went on to thrive, including guitarist Pat Travers and future Janis Joplin guitarist John Till.

He has received several honorary awards from his adopted country and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2013 for “his contributions to the development of the music industry in Canada, as a rock ‘n’ roll musician, and for his support of charitable causes.” Ronnie Hawkins, the band’s mentor and rockabilly star, has died aged 87


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