Ronnie Hawkins

TrackAlbum
Mary LouRonnie Hawkins (1959)
Baby JeanMr. Dynamo
Come LoveThe Best of Ronnie Hawkins (1964)
Who Do You Love?The Best of Ronnie Hawkins (1964)
BossmanThe Best of Ronnie Hawkins (1964)
Down In The AlleyRonnie Hawkins (Atlantic 1970)
Home From The ForestThe Giant of Rock ‘'n'’ Roll
Sick ‘'n'’ TiredThe Hawk (1979)
Hit RecordHello Again ...… Mary Lou
Days Gone ByLet it Rock (live, 1995)

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Peter Viney

The legends tell the story of Ronnie Hawkins, the self-acclaimed ‘King of Rockabilly’, and The Hawks, hard-travelled, hard bitten, unbelievably tight on stage, storming through Canada and the American South in the early sixties, playing in front of drunken brawling rednecks, rehearsing all hours and screwing the rest of the time. His stage show included the camel walk, which Michael Jackson was to call the Moonwalk. You can pick up compilation albums which actually say ‘Ronnie Hawkins and The Band’. In reality there are only a very small number of recordings where the whole of The Band play with Hawkins. If Hawkins knew how to do one thing, it was how to pick good musicians and drill them to perfection. Apart from The Band, Hawkins back up musicians have included Duane Allman, Roy Buchanan, King Biscuit Boy, Fred Carter Jnr. Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band, Crowbar and Bearfoot are graduates from Hawkins. As he said: When you’ve got as little talent as I have, you’ve got to surround yourself with the biggies.

I knew that The Band had started as The Hawks, backing Ronnie Hawkins around Canada and south to Oklahoma and Texas, but it was the infamous Rolling Stone interview with Ronnie Hawkins in 1969 that first got me interested in the man himself. That interview told the wild tales of their early days, and reportedly infuriated The Band then just getting married and achieving success. I’m going to try hard not to get too lost in Ronnie Hawkins’ stock of gags and sayings nor spend too much time tracing the various incarnations of The Hawks and their members. Ronnie is the King of Tall Talk, the most quotable musician of his era.

There’s also the question of originals and covers. Not only are many of Ronnie’s best songs covers, but some, like Young Jessie’s Mary Lou were done many times over the years. Ronnie recorded for Morris Levy’s Roulette Records, a mob label, and says he never met MacGill, his co-writer on credits. She was Levy’s secretary. He cheerfully purloined Chuck Berry’s Thirty Days, simply changing it from a calendar “thirty” to a biblical Forty Days, an improvement. His attitude was “It’s Swing Low Sweet Chariot” anyway. He must have lost because while LPs credit Hawkins, CDs credit Berry. Some of the Roulette steals were outrageous. You Cheated You Lied from Mr. Dynamo is credited to Levon Helm … in spite of major hits by both The Shields and The Slades with the song a year before he “wrote” it. They can hardly not have known, having done a Dick Clark show with Jesse Belvin who sang it with The Shields.

The story is hilarious and often told. I’ll distil it. Ronnie Hawkins was told by Conway Twitty that if he could get to Canada, it would be easy pickings for an authentic Arkansas rockabilly man. Ronnie headed north with his Arkansas group, including a just-out-of-school Levon Helm on drums. As Rockin’ Ronnie & The Rebels, they cut Kansas City, then Ronnie Hawkins the first LP in 1959. It includes Forty Days, Whatcha Gonna Do (When The Creek Runs Dry) and Odessa, an ode to his favourite hooker. Around this time, Ronnie came to England for a TV show, bringing only Levon Helm with him. They tried to take Joe Brown back with them on guitar, but he declined.

Gradually, the Hawks were fleeing southwards to home, and Ronnie started training up local Canadian replacements. He cut Mr. Dynamo in January 1960, with two songs by 15-year old Robbie Robertson, Someone Like You and Hey Boba Lu. Robbie didn’t play on it, but was recruited and followed the apprentice path: roadie to bass guitar to rhythm guitar. Then it was between him and Roy Buchanan for lead guitar, and Robbie got the job.

Ronnie tried out two alternative career paths. First he cut The Folk Ballads of Ronnie Hawkins in Nashville, then Ronnie Hawkins Sings Hank Williams also in Nashville. Levon Helm was the only Hawk on these sessions. Ronnie released the stupendously unsuccessful The Ballad of Caryl Chessman as a folk protest single, which he had recorded with The Cumberland Three.

From there, as Hawks left, replacements were Canadian, recruited from the best players in support bands. Rick Danko on bass and vocals, Richard Manuel on vocals (foremost) and piano, Garth Hudson on organ and sax, Jerry Penfound on sax. Later accounts imply that The Hawks had been together for many years before leaving Ronnie as Levon & The Hawks, then backing Dylan’s 1965-66 Tour, then becoming The Band. I suspect the line-up was more fluid than the later myth suggested. The key album had the misleading title of The Best of Ronnie Hawkins in 1964, not to be confused with later compilations because it was actually an album of new material cut between 1961 and 1963. This one includes all of The Band members.

Ronnie was already as much a club owner and agent and entrepreneur as a singer. The Hawks left, but Ronnie already had a shadow version in training, though Albert Grossman soon took a later line-up for Janis Joplin’s group. Ronnie was aware he was the academy. Through the next FIFTY years, he has kept many lots of Hawks going, later ones including his son, Robin. He partied with John & Yoko (their phone bill while staying with him nearly bankrupted him), became a film actor, played The Last Waltz, and kept on keeping on.

No more! My selections (chronologically).

Mary Lou (Young Jessie)
Let’s have the 1959 original for the doo-wop chorus, and slapped percussion, though Ronnie has done this one most times he’s been on a stage.

Baby Jean (Hawkins, MacGill, Helm)
From Mr. Dynamo. It’s a fine rock album, but when it came to selecting tracks, I kept hearing better stuff elsewhere. Great backing vocals, and Fred Carter Jnr, playing incisive licks on guitar. Baby Jean was recut in the 90s, but again, the original goes in. Chuck Willis’s Southern Love was second choice.

Come Love (Oliver)
1961. Robbie Robertson on stinging waspish guitar, but the other treat is Dionne Warwick, Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston on backing vocals behind a lascivious Ronnie vocal. The build up is ominous. I asked on the Band site, and Ronnie is credited with introducing GoGo dancers to Toronto. I’d guess they backed him live on a few tracks like this one.

Who Do You Love? (Bo Diddley)
This is his greatest recording, 1963, four of The Band, but no Garth Hudson. Roy Buchanan on thundering bass, Rick Danko on spikey rhythm guitar. This is famed rightly for the incendiary lead guitar playing of Robbie Robertson. If he’d retired after this one, he’d still be one of the greatest guitarists ever. He played like this on the 65/66 Dylan tour, but after that, lost interest in “cutting contests” and played for the song not the solo. It is an overwhelmingly wild record and Ronnie’s vocal and Manuel’s frantic piano are integral parts of it … as are Bo Diddley’s fearsome words, never done better. This was done again with The Band on The Last Waltz in 1976. I’m tempted to have both versions. But no, the original. The Last Waltz version suffers because Robbie has to play rhythm guitar a lot of the time, while the earlier version with Danko on rhythm guitar freed him to play lead all the way.

Bossman (Bo Diddley)
The first recording with all of The Band in place (with Jerry Penfound, who left Hawkins with them). Ronnie was a Bo Diddley specialist supreme. Fabulous organ playing from Garth Hudson. I’m restricting myself to three from Best Of or Sexy Ways, Arkansas (notable Levon Helm mouth harp), Mojo Man or High Blood Pressure would be in. They’d be in a best ten ever probably, but I want to show beyond one album. Really it’s a toss-up between those songs.

Down In The Alley
1970. That 1969 Rolling Stone publicity got him a deal with Atlantic, an album recorded at Muscle Shoals. King Biscuit Boy on harmonica, Barry Beckett on piano … oh, and guitars? Eddie Hinton on rhythm and Duane Allman on lead. John Lennon did the radio promo.

Home From The Forest (Gordon Lightfoot)
1974, from the second of his two albums for Monument, Giant of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the other being 1972’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Resurrection. The other well-known track is Kinky. I like Home From The Forest, because it’s Ronnie maturing (he’d be insulted at that) with a non-rockabilly singer-songwriter song.

Sick ‘n’ Tired
1979, from The Hawk. Ronnie has often recorded this Fats Domino song which is also on Mr. Dynamo. The 1979 album has Garth Hudson, James Burton, Paul Butterfield and Stan Szelest combining for a run through classic Ronnie songs and back catalogue stuff. He was still doing it in 2007 with The Weber Brothers.

Hit Record
From Hello Again … Mary Lou in 1991. This is one of his best later albums with a long-serving band of Hawks including Robin Hawkins, Jim Atkinson and Terry Danko (brother of Rick). There was a lot of nostalgia on there … Days Gone By, Making It Again, but summed up in Hit Record where Ronnie dreams of hitting the big time again. His imaginary band has Levon playing drums, Paul McCartney on bass … then Robbie playin’ rhythm … and Jesus pickin’ lead! (Jesus Christ being the only possible senior to Robbie). It ends I’d turn the Band to Hawks again, and we’d be outta sight. As they would. Ronnie is a so-and-so in failing to credit writers on records, while finding space to credit record executives and pals, and this is no different. He must have had input.

Days Gone By
Let’s go for the nostalgic thrill of Let It Rock (also on DVD) live in 1995 with The Band, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Days Gone By the big closer, so it goes in over the earlier Hello Again … Mary Lou version.

Number eleven …
Can’t be in there because I can’t access a copy of it … it used to be online. The album is Still Cruisin’ from 2002. It contains the song Blue Moon In My Sign. Knowing of the alleged (and one-sided) feud between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, the wily Ronnie lured both his protégées into contributing separately to the same track, thus uniting them without their knowledge.

Recommended reading: “Last Of The Good Old Boys”: Ronnie Hawkins and Peter Goddard. 1989, or anything where Ronnie is interviewed and gets to hold forth.

Ronnie Hawkins discography

Ronnie Hawkins biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #229

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Mar 21, 2014

    My favourite performance of Ronnie is the Last Waltz: as our good friend Bill M points out, it seems they’ve rehearsed to do Bo Diddley, but Ronnie changes it to ‘Who do you love’. A stunning performance. And he just wanders off stage at the end, with the Band still playing.

  2. Ilkka Jauramo
    Mar 22, 2014

    Thanks for recommended reading: “Last Of The Good Old Boys”. With that particular title I would read of anyone!

  3. Peter Viney
    Dec 31, 2014

    A surprise recent discovery is Southern Love (Live) which is from the British “Boys Meet Girls” TV show mentioned. It is noted as ‘1959 or 1960.’ It’s on the CD “Boys Meets Girls Vol. 1” and also on iTunes. Ronnie plays with the British house band, notably Cherry Wainer on Hammond organ and Joe Brown on guitar, with Levon Helm imported on drums as his MD. Who knows, maybe Cherry Wainer inspired Ronnie to recruit Garth Hudson – organ was unusual then in rock, and I guess the large Oh, Boy! house band had one in lieu of a string section.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

↓