Though little known in the United States, Ronnie Hawkins is the person who brought rock ‘n’ roll to Canada. “Born two days after Elvis Presley,” wrote the Wetland Tribune, “Ronnie Hawkins has been rockin’ for almost 50 years and shows no signs of slowing down.” Called Mr. Dynamo because of his wild stage antics, he played rockabilly in the late 1950s and charted with “Mary Lou” and “One of These Days.” He gathered numerous players into a band called the Hawks, many—like Robbie Robertson of the Band—who later became famous in their own right. Through television shows, a heavy touring schedule, and films, Hawkins’s influence reverberates everywhere that animated roots rock is appreciated. “Hawkins still performs in his own club in Toronto,” wrote Greil Marcus in the book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, “releases records on local labels, cultivates his legend, embroiders his tall tales, and in his own way remains as dignified and unregenerate as Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Hawkins was born on January 10, 1935, in Huntsville, Arkansas. His father, Jasper Hawkins, worked as a barber; his mother, Flora Cornett, taught school. “My dad,” Hawkins told Ian Wallis in The Hawk: The Story of Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, “was a champion redneck, liked to drink, chase women, fight, and do all those things that rednecks like. My mother was a complete opposite—she was a religious fanatic who never missed church in 40 years and used to give 10 percent of all she earned to the church, which really pi**ed my dad off.” The family moved to Fayetteville when Hawkins was nine, and he began to develop his love for music. “Ronnie would sneak down … to Sherman’s Tavern or Irene’s Café, regular meeting places for the black musicians …,” wrote Wallis. He also listened to gospel at a local African American church and enjoyed Dixieland jazz players like Ralph “Buddy” Hayes. Hawkins stayed in school to please his mother, and when he graduated in 1952, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas.
College, however, soon took a backseat to Hawkins’s growing interest in music and other activities. While still a teenager, he opened a club in Fayetteville with money he made running bootleg whiskey to the “dry” state of Oklahoma. At the club he formed a loose band with his friends, but his commitment to music remained informal. At the end of 1956 he left college and joined the Army for six months. “While he was stationed in Fort Sill,” wrote Wallis, “Hawkins became a serious rock ‘n’ roll performer,” and fronted an African American group called the Black Hawks for a short time. After the Army, Sam Phillips offered him $100 a week to front a band at Sun Studios, but the deal fell apart by the time he reached Memphis. Hawkins formed another band that included Jimmy Ray Paulman, Will “Pop” Jones, and a young drummer named Levon Helm, and they played small clubs in Helena and Marvell, Arkansas. “Failing to make enough progress in expanding his career options there,” wrote The Encyclopedia of Folk,
Born Ronald Cornett Hawkins on January 10, 1935, in Huntsville, AR; son of Flora Cornett (a teacher) and Jasper Newton Hawkins (a barber).
Formed first band while enrolled at the University of Arkansas, 1952; joined National Guard, 1953; served six months active duty the Army, 1957; built performing career in Canada, late 1950s; signed to the Roulette label in New York, recorded his debut, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, 1959; charted several singles including “Mary Lou” and “Forty Days”; formed new version of the Hawks with Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel; recorded The Folk Ballads of Ronnie Hawkins, 1960, and Ronnie Hawkins Sings the Songs of Hank Williams, 1962. continued to rebuild the Hawks’ lineup through 1960s as band members left; appeared in several films including The Last Waltz and Renaldo and Clara, 1978; recorded the live album The Hawk and Rock in England, 1982; performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, 1992; recorded “Backdoor Man” as a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, 1997.
Awards: Juno Award (Canada), Country Male Vocalist, 1982.
Country & Western Music, “in mid-1958, he took his band north of the border to Canada.”
After a warm reception, the Arkansas native decided to build his musical career in Canada. In the spring of 1959 Hawkins and his band stopped in New York and successfully auditioned for Roulette Records, resulting in 1959’s Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks. The same band, with the addition of bassist James G. Evans, played on the follow-up, Mr. Dynamo. “Forty Days” reached number 45 on the American charts in July of 1959, while “Mary Lou,” which sold 200,000 copies in its first week, reached number 26 in October. Despite having a hit on the chart and an appearance on American Bandstand, Paulman, Jones, and Evans eventually quit over money issues and returned to Arkansas. “The Hawks,” noted Wallis, “rarely stayed as a settled unit for very long.” In 1960 the evolving lineup, including luminaries such as Fred Carter Jr., Stan Szelest, and Roy Buchanan, toured and recorded The Folk Ballads of Ronnie Hawkins.
Over the next 12 months Hawkins rebuilt the Hawks with Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm, later to be known as the Band. “For four years, from 1959 thru 1963, Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks were one of the hottest rock ‘n’ roll bands working,” wrote Bruce Eder in All Music Guide, “which was very special in a time when rock ‘n’ roll had supposedly died.” In 1962 Hawkins and The Hawks recorded Ronnie Hawkins Sings the Songs of Hank Williams, and in 1963 released “Who Do You Love” and “Bo Diddley,” the latter becoming a sensation in Canada. Attendance at shows increased, and the group developed a devoted following in Ontario, but they were unable to gain exposure elsewhere. “They may have been growing,” wrote Wallis, “but they were ultimately growing apart, and sadly, this, the most famous of all the generations of Hawks, played with Ronnie for a comparatively short period.”
Hawkins continued to rebuild his band throughout the 1960s, toured continually, and formed his own record label. In 1969 an article in Rolling Stone, chronicling his career and exploits with the Band, led to a generous new recording contract with Atlantic Records. The same year, John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed on his farm for two weeks while they planned a peace crusade. Hawkins and music journalist Ritchie Yorke also traveled widely to spread Lennon’s message of “Make love, not war,” nearly leading to their arrest in China when they waved a banner adorned with this catchphrase from the Great Wall. In the 1970s he released several albums including The Hawk in 1971, Rock & Roll Resurrection in 1972, and Giant of Rock & Roll in 1974 on Monument; he also appeared in The Last Waltz in 1978, a film chronicling the final concert of the Band, and played Bob Dylan’s father in Renaldo and Clara in 1978.
Hawkins continued to perform and record during the 1980s and 1990s, and while fame has eluded him, he persists undaunted. “You never know,” he told the Wetland Tribune, “stardom might be just around the corner.” His influence, however, resounds beyond mere popularity. “When the definitive history of twentieth-century popular music is finally written,” wrote Wallis, “the entry for Ronnie Hawkins will concentrate less on his tally of hit records and more on the many great bands that he has put together.” While the Band is the most obvious example, guitarist John Till played a vital roll in the Full Tilt Boggie band, backing Janis Joplin on Pearl, and several ex-Hawks formed the short-lived but influential Crowbar. Hawkins himself, whether performing at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural or a local club, continues to spread the gospel of rock ‘n’ roll. “He’s still the original Mr. Dynamo,” wrote Cub Koda in All Music Guide, “capable of shaking the walls down any old time he feels like it.”
Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, Roulette, 1959.
The Folk Ballads of Ronnie Hawkins, Roulette, 1960.
The Best of Ronnie Hawkins & His Band, Rhino, 1990.
Marcus, Greil, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Plume, 1997.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, second edition, St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Wallis, Ian, The Hawk: The Story of Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, Quarry Press, 1996.
Welland Tribune (Ontario, Canada), September 21, 2001, C4.
“Ronnie Hawkins,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 27, 2001).
“The Band,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 27, 2001).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
"Hawkins, Ronnie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hawkins-ronnie
"Hawkins, Ronnie." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hawkins-ronnie
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