Ronnie Hawkins from Arkansas, a brash rock star from Arkansas who became a patron of the Canadian music scene after going north and recruiting some of the local musicians who came to be known as the band, has died.
His wife, Wanda, confirmed to The Canadian Press that Hawkins died of illness on Sunday morning. He is 87 years old.
“He walked peacefully and looked as handsome as ever,” she said by phone.
Born just two days after Elvis Presley, the Huntsville local friend known as “The Eagle” (he also nicknamed himself “The King of Rock” and “Mr. Dynamo”) was a A hell of a guy with a big chin and a muscular body.
He rose to fame in the 1950s with “Mary Lou” and “Odessa” and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that included early rock stars such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty.
“Hawkins is the only person I’ve ever heard who can make a beautiful and sexy song like ‘My Gal is Red Hot’ sound dirty,” Greer Marcus said in his critically acclaimed essay on music and American culture. “Hawk” is accused of “knowing more backs, chambers and backs than anyone from Newark to Mexicali,” wrote in his book Mystery Train, adding that “Hawk”
Hawkins doesn’t have the talent of Presley or Perkins, but he does have ambition and insight into talent.
He first performed in Canada in the late ’50s, and realized he would stand out in a country where native rock barely existed. Canadian musicians often move to the United States to develop their careers, but Hawkins is one of the few Americans who try the opposite.
Hawkins formed a Canadian support team with drummer and Arkansas’ Arkansan Levon Helm, which included guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel and Bethrick Danko. They became the Eagles and were educated at the Hawkins School of Rock.
In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Robertson said, “When the music was too far from Ronnie’s ears, or when he didn’t know when to start singing, he would tell us that except Thelonious Monk, no People understand what we’re playing. But the most important thing for him is that he makes us rehearse and practice a lot. We’ll often go and play until 1am and then rehearse until 4am.”
Robertson and his friends supported Hawkins from 1961-63, putting on raucous shows across Canada and recording a ranting cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” that became Hawkins One of the iconic songs.
But Hawkins didn’t sell many records, and the Eagles grew more than their leader. They hooked up with Bob Dylan in the mid-’60s, and by the end of the 20th century, they had become their own superstars and changed their name to the band.
Meanwhile, Hawkins settled in Peterborough, Ontario, where he scored a number of top 40 singles, including “Bluebird in the Hill” and “Down in the Alley.”
Granted, he didn’t keep up with the latest voices—he was horrified the first time he heard Canadian Neil Young—but in the late 1960s he met John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. They lived with Hawkins and his wife Wanda and three children when they visited Canada.
“At that particular time, I thought I was doing them a favor,” he later told the National Post. “I think the Beatles are a lucky British band. I don’t know much about their music. I thought Yoko was (stupid). To this day, I’ve never heard a Beatles album. For 10 Billion Dollars, I can’t name a song in “Abbey Road”. I’ve never picked up a Beatles album in my life and never heard it. Never. But John is so strong. I love him … He’s not one of those hits, you know.”
Hawkins also remained in touch with the band, and in 1976 was one of the guests at the all-star farewell concert for Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz.
For a moment, he’s back in power, grinning under his Stetson hat, swaggering, and shouting “big time, big time” to his former subordinates as they tear up “who do you love”.
In addition to “The Last Waltz,” Hawkins starred in Dylan’s films “Renaldo and Clara,” the big-budget fiasco “Heaven’s Gate” and “Hello Mary Lou.” A 2007 documentary about Hawkins, “Live and Play,” was narrated by Dan Aykroyd and featured another famous Arkansas Bill Clinton.
Hawkins’ albums include “Ronnie Hawkins,” “The Hawk,” and “Can’t Stop Rockin,” a 2001 release that featured Helm and Robertson on the same track, “Blue Moon in My Sign.” After The Last Waltz, Hulme and Robertson stopped speaking, and they recorded their contributions in separate studios.
Over time, Hawkins mentored a number of young Canadian musicians who achieved career success, including guitarist Pat Travers and future Janis Joplin guitarist John Thiel.
He has received several honorary awards from his adopted country and was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2013 in recognition of his “contribution to the development of the Canadian music industry as a rock musician and his philanthropy.”
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