Dale Hawkins

TrackSingle / Album
Susie-QChecker 863
La-Do-DadaChecker 900
My BabeChecker 906
Ain't That Lovin' You BabyChecker 923
Lifeguard ManChecker 929
Every Little GirlChecker 944
Gooblie BooblieDale Hawkins
Worried About You BabyDale Hawkins
Number Nine TrainDaredevil
Lovin' BugChess Rockabillies

Dale Hawkins photo 1

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Dale Hawkins playlist

 

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

“If Dale Hawkins is to be remembered for any one lifetime achievement beyond “Susie-Q”, it’ll be for having hired a handful of the most accomplished guitar slingers in rock’n’roll. How he was able to attract this regular flow of often-doomed but amazing guitar technicians is hard to fathom.”

Those words come from the late Bill Millar writing in his book, “Let The Good Times Rock!”, a collection of articles on rock’n’roll and American Roots Music in general. His essay on Hawkins was an adaptation of his sleeve notes to the 1998 Ace UK Hawkins compilation, Rock’n’Roll Tornado.

When you consider that those guitar slingers include James Burton and Roy Buchanan plus others with names like Kenny Paulsen and Carl Adams, who may not be so well known but who rocked just as hard as the more trendy guys and are revered by fans worldwide, plus the occasional studio walk-on role for Scotty Moore, then it’s hard to dispute Bill’s statement.

 

The Hit(s)

Dale hit the Billboard Hot 100 with four records, two of which, Susie-Q and La-Do-Dada reached the not overly exalted heights of #27 and #32, respectively. Not something to get too excited about you might think, but Gene Vincent didn’t do any better in the US (though made up for that in the UK). However, in spite of its relatively low chart position, in blues/rock terms Susie-Q must be seen as second only in terms of influence to Presley’s That’s All Right, though the caveat should be added that not too many US white musicians picked up this baton until a load of Brits latched on to the sounds of Chicago and the American South and started exporting them to the US in the early/mid sixties.

Let’s clear up two misconceptions about the record first, both of which appear in the Wikipedia write-up: it wasn’t rockabilly and it wasn’t a (disputed) “remake of a 1939 release of a song of the same title, ‘Susie-Q’, by Sonny Boy Williamson”. I’ll forgive the first claim since the habit of labelling all white rock and roll music from the mid to late fifties and very early sixties in that manner is one that almost all US reviewers are guilty of (although you could just as well say that we’re inclined more to pedantry on this side of the pond). While Dale and the boys did cut a few records that could be fairly described as rockabilly, their norm displayed very little of the country influence which was all pervasive in places like Memphis in spite of its nom-de-plume as Home Of The Blues.

Sonny Boy Williamson – number 1 that is, not Rice Miller – certainly made a record entitled Susie Q – this is it. Give it a whirl and you’ll find that while it’s a perfectly fine record it’s not related to the Hawkins disc either melodically or lyrically. In particular, the Susie Q in the SBW1 record was a dance craze while Dale’s Susie-Q was a real live lady with a way of walking that led Dale to declare his passion in song. Bill Millar devotes a lengthy paragraph to the topic of the Susie Q dance which he states was a development of the Lindy Hop and was featured in the Cotton Club Revue of 1936. He goes on to name a host of records celebrating the dance emanating from both the black and the white sides of the tracks.

All that notwithstanding, there is a clear and actually very significant influence from black culture that is present on the Hawkins Susie-Q and that’s the structure deployed by Howlin’ Wolf on several of his records based on a prominent guitar riff, usually played, and probably invented, on the earlier records by Willie Johnson but with Hubert Sumlin taking over the role as time moved on; discs like Crying At Daybreak and his classic Smokestack Lightning are good examples. The riff that the 17-year-old James Burton concocted on his ’53 Telecaster didn’t relate directly to any of the riffs used by Johnson/Sumlin/etc on the Wolf’s records but that was the style he was attempting to emulate, no doubt encouraged by Dale. An early version cut at a radio station sometime in 1956 shows that the arrangement went through a number of phases (including the removal of the sax and the reduction of the tempo with an increase in the intensity) before it emerged as the one we know:

On the back of the LP Dale Hawkins, released by Chess in 1976, Cub Koda talks about ordering the single in 1963 on the solitary basis of the picture of Dale on the cover of the Oh! Susie-Q LP in a mail order catalogue. And …

“Well, the record comes in the mail. I plunk it down on my trusty Magnavox for a spin and within two days had my parents hollering at me to play something else. I wore that record out down to the label, and my feelings about it then still hold true today: if you planned a record to cook like this, it couldn’t happen better or more naturally than on this track. A classic, magic record by any standards.”

And the other hit, La-Do-Dada? Well it came after four more sides of solid rock and roll with guitars to the fore, to the extent that the casual listener might have been deceived into not realising that James Burton had hopped off to play lead in the Bob Luman band only three short weeks after the Susie-Q session. With sales not forthcoming, did Leonard Chess whisper in Dale’s ear, “Can’t you come up with something a bit more poppy?” Could be, even while Dale’s still getting the hots for his lady (though indications from her – “You never say yes or no / But only maybe” – are rather more nuanced), he articulates those sentiments over a kind of two chord semi-latin affair. But you couldn’t keep Dale’s band caged up for too long; after one minute and ten seconds there’s a key shift and a gorgeous cameo from the boys featuring screeching guitar and boogieing bass. It’s back to the starting key for the last few verses though the intensity of the break lingers, not at all hindered by a drummer who retains some of the ferocity from those few fleeting seconds of rock.

Another pleasing aspect of the single is the presence of backing singer, Margaret Lewis. The sisters, Margaret and Rose Lewis, were a regular presence on Hawkins sessions and sometimes appeared on stage with Dale.

 

Guitar Gods

Given those words from Bill Millar that I used as my opening para, some focus on the presence of those gentlemen on Dale’s records might be fitting, though I should add that guitars feature so strongly across the bulk of Dale’s Checker oeuvre that selecting standouts on the basis of their axe work isn’t an easy task.

But, given the imminent departure of Burton, I can hardly ignore the flip side of Susie-Q, Don’t Treat Me This Way. Again, his riffing sets the tone but he’s less stentorian this time, leading you to expect something like a medium tempo Little Walter jumper but that thought is immediately shattered by some doo-wop guys who don’t seem to get fully identified, whichever source you delve into, and that includes Bill M of course, plus a couple of sessionographies (on which there’s more in the footnotes) – let’s just say friends, relatives, friends of relatives i.e. no one professional and it sounded a bit like that. Already Dale was creating something of his own, something like the R&B he preferred to listen to but mingling those components including the excellent break from Burton into something we can only call Dale Hawkins rock’n’roll.

On the follow-up Baby Baby / Mrs Merguitory’s Daughter, Burton is replaced by not one but two guitarists, Carl Adams and Fred Carter, a feature that would be fairly regular if not quite omnipresent throughout Dale’s Checker career, albeit with not infrequent changing of the players wielding the picks. This of course makes life difficult for someone like me who’s trying to figure out who’s playing lead – and we’re largely reliant on interviews and fading memories – but it’s made up for by the interchange that comes with the sharing of roles. Flipping the A-side which, from cowbells onwards, is a fairly tame (and predictable) attempt at generating a clone of Susie-Q, we get in-your-face guitar even if the bouncy riff coming from it is but a minor variant of one we all know pretty well, plus Dale chanting “I’m in love with Mrs Merguitory’s daughter”, though who Mrs M is we don’t get told apart from a statement from Dale that said lady was a character in a Lon Chaney film he’d seen. So in some respects a fairly stoopid record, but heck, this is rock and roll and I do admit to some liking for the disc. Try it and make sure you listen to the intro, a great example of that two guitars in a playful mood thing.

Skip ahead several sessions until you get to 1959 in the Tapio Väisänen sessionography and you’ll reach a track that only saw the light of day years later, Gooblie Booblie, and lo and behold, there’s that riff again, played this time by Scotty Moore with fellow Elvis stalwart D.J. Fontana on drums plus a fine unnamed pianist. In terms of selection I confess to using the multiple rationales of (a) desperately trying to get the numbers down and not repeating a riff is a good excuse, (b) that this one has a better flow than “Mrs M” and (c) it’s always good to hear a Scotty Moore solo and this one lives up to expectations, so it’s in and here it is. (And the number was first available to the public via the Chess 1976 LP Dale Hawkins I referred to earlier although it’s subsequently appeared in other compilations.)

Drop back to ’58 and you’ll find the Dale Hawkins version of My Babe, which is arguably the best take of the number outside Little Walter’s splendid original. What this take has in spades is edge, with Dale so proud to tell the world his lady has absolutely everything that he’s going to shout the fact from the rooftops and, from the very first (guitar) notes, you’re aware this is going to be something special. Nothing that follows disappoints. In particular, we are privileged to get to hear Roy Buchanan’s very first recorded solo. He’d been present on at least one earlier session but this was his first starring role.

And, you guessed, the ladies in the picture are the Lewis Sisters.

Bill Millar notes that as a general rule on the sessions when Buchanan and Paulsen were paired together, which was more often than not, Kenny took the solos on the more rocking numbers leaving Roy the prettier or more ballad-leaning ones (with info coming from Roy). However, My Babe wasn’t the only exception; Lovin’ Bug, another unissued track cut during Dale’s final Checker session, was another which had Roy Buchanan writ large all the way through. I just don’t understand quite how this one got overlooked at the time. Even when it did see release it was not until 1978 when Chess were trying to pick up a share of the market in the UK (and mainland Europe) for rockabilly via an album, the title of which came straight to the point: Chess Rockabillies – Dale was in there with the Rusty Yorks, the Eddie Fontaines etc etc. And this track was no more rockabilly than most of his others, in fact it sounds almost modern to me:

… and, yes, I did buy the LP at the time along with most others that had Rockabillies in the title.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider. The unwritten – until now – premise of this Toppermost was “could Dale produce another record as good as Susie-Q”? This record answers that question. Tucked away in a mixed compilation and masquerading in the eyes of the compiler as rockabilly which as any fule kno (or at least any self-respecting rockabilly fan), it wasn’t. Didn’t matter a jot, Lovin’ Bug was a great, nay, GREAT record. It’s easy to say that Buchanan and Hawkins were spurring each other on but they kicked off on a magnificent high and just got better. I can hear Craig Revel Horwood saying A-maz-ing, and it was.

I’ve mentioned Kenny Paulsen a couple of times so a track on which we’re told that he’s the man on lead would be right and proper. (Little) Liza Jane, the New Orleans standard popularised by Huey “Piano” Smith, is just such a track and Paulsen is not only present, he’s all over it like a rash (though exactly which contributions are Paulsen and which Buchanan, I wouldn’t like to say; they certainly make a fine sound together).

 

Blues

For a man who pundits often say owed much more to blues than country – and I’ve used words like that already – Dale didn’t cut all that many that clearly fall under a blues heading. The ones below could be described as R&B or blues depending on who’s doing the describing. Indeed the first, the Hawkins’ interpretation of Jimmy Reed’s Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby, even has hints of jazzy laid-back country – think someone like Roger Miller – which is helped considerably by the near acoustic tone of the fills from the peerless Scotty Moore plus his all-too-brief break, and some walking bass from Willie Dixon with a touch of Mr Bassman singing from Harvey Fuqua (of the Moonglows) in the build towards the end of the chorus, finishing with him harmonising with Dale on the punch line: “And you don’t even know my name”.

Dale is closely miked and intimate though that doesn’t stop him getting a growl in at the start of the second verse. Which sentence should logically lead me in to some descriptive words on the Hawkins vocal approach in general. But such words don’t flow easily. He’s not highly distinctive, nor is he an Elvis clone. The aggression that’s present on Susie-Q, though it’s often combined with more mischievous tones, doesn’t become such a regular feature as one might have expected. He’s also not averse to playing a role in a team effort à la the Coasters. Lastly, there’s the matter of his Louisiana accent. It’s not frequently stressed during the Checker period but does get played-up considerably at times during his later, post-Checker days. None of which suggests that the Hawkins vocal technique was a strong asset but it has to be said that he matches it so well to the material that weaknesses don’t become apparent. He rarely essayed ballads, though a post-Checker The First Cut Is The Deepest was a rare exception and didn’t come out badly at all. Let’s just say that Dale had an expressive voice and for the bulk of the time – certainly for the majority of his four-and-a-half-year Checker sojourn, he expressed himself well.

Worried About You Baby is another of the unissued tracks which got included in the Chess 1976 LP, Dale Hawkins. It straddled the divide perfectly between rockabilly – helped no end by a slapback bass from James Kirkland who, along with James Burton, was moonlighting from the Ricky Nelson band – and Chicago blues. That all makes sense when you realise that the source of the number was Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup back in ’52 though in reality it was more likely that Dale was more familiar with the more recent version from Texan, Roy Gaines. (And if anyone is confused about the “Chester Burnett” writing credit appearing against the number in the, otherwise excellent, Tapio Väisänen sessionography, I should say that this is a rare error from the writer); Worried About My Baby from Howlin’ Wolf is actually a different number though it does have some similarities.

Whether you’d call Number Nine Train, a blues, R&B, or even a rock and roll number, I don’t know though in its original incarnation from Tarheel Slim it does bear some resemblance to Chicago blues. Dale and the boys had a go at the song but, once again, it went unissued and didn’t see release until it popped up on the 1997 LP, Daredevil which, according to Cub Koda in the AllMusic review, was “compiled from Hawkins’ own personal stash of well-worn acetates”. The train aspect is strongly stressed in the percussive intro followed almost immediately by a glorious melange of guitar work (from Carl Adams and Roy Buchanan) as the departing Number Nine disappears taking Dale’s Baby up the line. Full marks to Mr Hawkins and team for producing a fresh version rather than sticking rigidly to the Slim blueprint. The number itself, both lyrically and melodically, isn’t a million miles from Presley’s Mystery Train although that sounds positively stripped back compared with either the Slim or the Hawkins “Number Nine”.

That’s almost it for blues-related material from Dale’s Checker stint. But another dip into the Bill Millar essay is in order. Here’s Roy Buchanan:

“Dale’s best things were never recorded. He always had dreams of Top Ten stuff – he strived for it – and I played what he wanted. I didn’t enjoy it, but I liked the shows – not the big shows where we’d do ‘Susie-Q’ and two others – but the stuff we did in clubs. Then we’d do blues – spur of the moment things. Dale would make them up as we went along.”

Track #2 on the Daredevil album, If You Please Me, could just be one of those impromptu tracks with the lo fidelity recording quality and lack of a proper ending attesting to something cut in a garage or at least outside the normal studio environment. Dale’s obviously enjoying himself and the boys are conjuring up a kind of Muddy Waters environment. A hint of what Buchanan says we missed and we’re lucky the track has survived; it may or may not be the other track recorded along with the first take of Susie-Q.

The rest of the Buchanan quote gives me a neat segue into the next section. It would seem that it wasn’t just Leonard Chess urging Dale to write and record more pop-oriented material.

 

Attempts To Find Something That Would Sell

La-Do-Dada is probably the best example in terms of attractiveness of end product and “writing and performing to order”, regardless of who was giving the orders. But it was far from isolated. Someday One Day, a flip from ’59 and with Margaret Lewis in support (and probably Buchanan on guitar) has the teeny pop trappings delivered with verve, but somehow I feel that Dale’s heart wasn’t in this sort of fluffy stuff. He can’t quite keep a straight face compared to, say, a Holly or a Nelson who would pull this feat off with ease. He does far better on Heaven, the sort of thing which got labelled as rock-a-ballad in those days and was often the vehicle for the excesses of a Twitty or a Presley even. In comparison, Dale’s vocal limitations are apparent but such initial thoughts fade as the conviction shines through.

Lifeguard Man from summer ’59, had Dale aided and assisted by the Moonglows with “Harvey sang bass” in all the right places plus a swinging band on display with neat switches to a more rocking sound on the choruses; this was Dale & co in Coasters mode and they did it so well that a fine pop record emerged which could have been a hit with some determined plugging. For the hardened rockers in the audience there was even a decent axe break tucked away in there amongst all the more frivolous ephemera.

The final track I’m featuring in this section could have fitted just as well in the next, on curios. Take a listen to Every Little Girl, a flip from 1960 co-written by the great Jackie Wilson, and tell me it doesn’t remind you of something. Scratching your head? Well, I can tell you that that something is highly likely to be Dion’s The Wanderer which came out two years later. Strip away the splendid turnaround style intro which opens the Hawkins track and you’re immediately tapping your foot to that rhythm which is a kind of rocked-up Texas Shuffle. The melody line, chord sequence (and lyrics, of course) differ between the two songs but there’s no mistaking that beat which has always been a major part of the bedrock of The Wanderer – or to mix metaphors, its foundations – which does, even if ever-so-slightly, question the legitimacy of the later track. Okay, that’s all somewhat tongue-in-cheek and I wouldn’t dream of questioning the quality of the Dion record – it’s a classic – but maybe a comment in the Wiki feature on the song might be appropriate (or am I imagining all this?).

 

The Old Curiosity Shop

… or, some tracks you might not have expected – curios I’m calling them – with no Top Ten selections but tracks of interest nevertheless.

Goodnight Sweetheart might have been cut with the Moonglows on 2nd December 1957 with no other musicians identified. It was eventually released on a US compilation album on the Mattucci label entitled Goodnight Sweetheart in 1980. The song (originally titled Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite) was first cut by the Spaniels in 1953 and it gave them a #5 R&B Chart hit. While Dale had not infrequently dabbled with doo wop, using it as a component on his records rather than the overall stylistic approach, and at times utilised Harvey Fuqua & the Moonglows (who also recorded for Chess/Checker), this was the only record on which he went the whole hog and attempted a cover of a slow doo wop ballad. This was the Hawkins version which dropped the tempo from the original and added dramatic colouration via relatively restrained usage of what I assume was the Hawkins band.

Dale’s final Checker release coupled Grandma’s House with I Want To Love You. The A-side which was penned by Dale along with Roy Buchanan, was a folky sounding affair with Roy’s guitar only supporting Dale. Not really folk but it was hardly typical for Dale in the Checker years. I say that, but a session right at the end of the Checker period (or maybe just after) and which yielded no released tracks at the time, did get dug up by the Daredevil compiler who included Everglades, a folksy sort of item again possibly having a tangential relationship to the Harlan Howard song of that name. I find the schlocky arrangement unappealing but I could be in a minority.

And, yes, so far I’ve been dealing with the Checker releases plus some that were canned in that timeframe. I’m not sure when the first cut of my final ‘curio’ was created but it’s a track which appeared first on Daredevil which was mostly Checker offcuts. The track is an attractive mid tempo blues entitled I Wish I Hadn’t Called Home and according to the LP data it’s a Roger Miller composition and it’s sung by him. Well, yes and no, the singer sounds quite a lot like Dale to me, there’s no second singer and the only support comes from an acoustic sounding guitar; would the take, which sounds a little like a rehearsal, have been on the album only for Dale’s guitar work, assuming that was Dale? To confuse the situation even more, the song reappears with a fully worked-up arrangement (including strings) on the flip side of Dale’s second post-Checker single. This time, the singer who has to be Dale, is more boisterous and the upping of the tempo signals a shift to the sugary side of a bitter sweet concoction. Further listening reveals more differences in the vocal so maybe the Daredevil take was Roger. Either way it’s an oddity.

 

Random Rockers

In no particular order; these records didn’t make the cut but on another day any one of them or more could have done:

Boogie Woogie Teenage Girl – a tribute to Big Joe Turner and his Boogie Woogie Country Girl though it’s a different song with no attempt to copy the great man – Dale captures the mood with a riff thrown in that sounds distinctly like one that Chuck Berry invented but there’s more original guitar work as the number progresses – my only complaint is the fact that the pianist is so far down in the mix, the Turner comparison would have been even more fitting since he always used a keyboard rattler (and it was usually Pete Johnson) – which also reminds me I’ve given no credit to pianists on any of Dale’s records though there was often someone filling the role, and he – I think they were all he’s – always did a more than respectable job.

Sweetie Pie – Diddley style rock with Margaret & Rose doing a kind of call and response – no one explicitly attempts to echo the Mighty Bo’s axe tone but what we do get, about 40 seconds in, is a slab of that delicious dual guitar work.

Back To School Blues – Whether Berry started the sub-genre or not who knows but every rocker had to have his (or her maybe) school song and Dale was no exception – sax riffing, hand-clapping and even the silly voice doesn’t spoil it.

Little Pig – Margaret duets with Dale on a version of the nursery rhyme sung in first person by the baddie – “Hoh-hoh, bama-chinny-chin-chin / I’m the wolf and I wanna come in” – a firm favourite with fans and often appears in compilations.

Wild Wild World – The ability of the rhythm guitarist (Buchanan or Paulsen) to find a particularly metallic tone from his guitar/amp combination plus Dale keeping you on your toes by occasionally chucking in more words on a line than you expected, elevate this jumper out of the ordinary.

Teenage Dolly – There’s some kind of parade ground beat going on here – from the same session that produced Boogie Woogie Teenage Girl, Sweetie Pie and Little Pig – were they on fire that day? – “I got a teenage dolly with a hole in her stocking / But she keeps on rocking with a hole in her stocking” – and that “Uh huh” in the middle eight signals raunch if anything does.

Take My Heart – The title might lead you to expect a syrupy ballad or teenie stuff but, no, it’s that rare thing for Dale & co, out and out rockabilly with Paulsen and Buchanan present and correct and I would guess that it’s Kenny who’s more to the fore; there’s also a sax player – heresy of heresies – who’s crept into the studio and gone completely unnoticed by one of the sessionography compilers.

 

A One-off

Dale’s recording of Earl King’s Lonely Nights, a 1959 B-side, was (a) a demonstration of his knowledge of (black) rhythm and blues, and (b) a confident attempt to move into that territory. Essentially swamp pop before anyone had come up with that term and Dale might well have been tempted into this form of music by his friend Bobby Charles whose On Bended Knee (the flipside of Later Alligator) had been given just the same form of swampy marinade.

 

Post-Checker

Dale left Chess/Checker in early 1961. To say that his output from then on was, with some exceptions, disappointing, wouldn’t be an overstatement. The writing was on the wall with his first post-Checker release, Money Honey (on the Louisville, Kentucky based, Tilt Record label). Given his ability to interpret blues-cum-R&B standards as apparently proven at Checker, one would have thought this would have been a shoe-in for Dale and his new label, but the determination to ignore the melodic aspects of the verses by Dale and by that I mean the attributes that hooked you on the Drifters original and the Presley interpretation, plus the bubblegum arrangement, resulted in a record which just couldn’t match those earlier versions.

Similar, if not identical, criticism could be made of almost all of Dale’s singles up to the mid-sixties, no matter which label he appeared on, and there were several. Quite amazingly, even Atlantic couldn’t manage to get a good record out of him. Of the two singles he cut there, Stay At Home Lulu / I Can’t Erase You (Out Of My Heart) was brassy with the label evidently viewing Dale as another Bobby Darin, while the second, Women – That’s What’s Happening! / With A Feelin, for which Dale seemed to have been given the steering wheel – was better but still not outstanding; neither the A- or the B-side were strong songs in their own right: this was something that Dale often overcame while at Checker with the strength of the accompaniment pushing up the quality of the end product. Something to do with all those inventive guitarists perhaps?

Peaches, on the Zonk label, might have been one for cult rock instrumental buyers but it has to be said that it was the result of near cribbing, with the source being the Markeys’ Last Night only with a horn riff that was marginally different and Dale himself extemporising on the topic of fruit at the end of each 12 bars until he ran out of things to say:

There was a live twist LP entitled Let’s All Twist (on Roulette), apparently from the Miami Beach Peppermint Lounge, which saw release in this timeframe but I’m inclined to draw a veil over its content – there’s a kind of curate’s egg thing going on in my view. For the really curious reader, this clip holds the entire album and anyone who chooses to listen to it will note that the Last Night riff occupies the opening grooves.

In terms of record sales, Dale Hawkins was certainly bright enough to see that he wasn’t connecting with record buyers and, by the middle of the sixties, was devoting much of his energy to behind-the-scenes music business activity. He attained the roles of Vice President, Southwest Division, Bell Records and A&R Director, RCA West Coast Rock Division working with artists like Bruce Channel (Bell) and Michael Nesmith and Harry Nilsson (both RCA).

 

L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas

Dale’s yen for recording tracks in his own right didn’t completely disappear after he’d made a determined effort to immerse himself in the production and management aspects of the music business and, towards the end of the decade, he set about going to studio(s) on his own behalf. The place names which appeared in the title of the resulting album, L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas, which emerged in 1969, denote the locations of the studios used for this activity: the Joe Osborn studio in Los Angeles, with Joe being a noted bass player and member of the famous Wrecking Crew in L.A. but who, prior to moving to the coast, had recorded with Dale – he was on La-Do-Dada but I didn’t give him a namecheck earlier; Ardent Studio in Memphis which would later become a household name among power pop aficionados for its usage by Big Star; and studios owned by Steve Wright and Robin Hood Brians respectively in Tyler, Northeast Texas. The last-named studios were used by the band Mouse and the Traps; Dale had done some production work with them, hence the choice. Which brings me on to the subject of session musicians used; these tend to vary depending on your choice of source material on the topic. However, the LP section of 45cat states that its info comes directly from the back cover of the LP and lists, among the major names, James Burton, Joe Osborn and Ry Cooder (L.A.), Wayne Jackson & Co (elsewhere usually referred to as the Memphis Horns, and Memphis of course) and members of Mouse and the Traps including Bugs Henderson and Ronnie “Mouse” Weiss, both on guitar (at Tyler). Names that crop up from other sources include Taj Mahal, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn (who does get a co-write credit with Dale on the final track, Little Rain Cloud).

That’s a lot of words and if you Google L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas you’ll find quite a lot of articles & reviews all packed with fulsome praise for the album. Stephen Thomas Erlewine writing in AllMusic is a little more cautious only giving the set three stars but he still notes “the times when he knocks down borders between soul and rock, when he digs into funky, bluesy workouts that sound like all genres without belonging to any of them – still sound vibrant and exciting decades later.”

Stephen might have a point but somehow it doesn’t all quite gel for me. Dale is certainly not lacking in enthusiasm on these tracks but it all too readily topples over into desperation making him sound like a hammy actor playing his role(s) for what might be the last time so making the most of them. Two of the covers – Hound Dog and Baby, What You Want Me To Do – suffer in comparison to both the originals and the Presley versions. The ballads penned by Bobby Charles, Joe and La-La La-La, are among the better tracks with Dale opting for the restrained folky delivery of Grandma’s House. His take on Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town, accompanied by Mouse & co in Tyler, is a valid attempt to put more acid into the song in line with lyrics that justify a serving of agony (unlike the bouncy version from Kenny Rogers/First Edition which became a hit that same year) but isn’t helped by the intrusive organ. The album might be summed up by the opening and closing tracks: LA-Memphis-Tyler on which the Memphis contingent fully justify their presence; Dale doesn’t go too OTT but there’s a certain lack of content in the song; and Little Rain Cloud which kicks off very promisingly in Hooker Boogie Chillen style but that effect is largely destroyed by the entrance of the horns doing their best to produce something along the lines of a 2001: Space Odyssey theme with all the grandiosity that implies, and some downright weird vocalising from Dale:

 

To put this album in context, 1969 marked roughly the end of the sixties psych period which, regardless of how you interpret ‘psych’, saw just as much excess as genuine and interesting experimentation. Both those words, excess and experimentation, apply to this set. There’s no doubt that Dale deserves a medal for bravery for its creation but it’s an album which still has a marmite effect on listeners all these years later.

 

Wildcat Tamer

Apart from the very occasional single – one was a take on The First Cut Is The Deepest mentioned earlier – and several unissued tracks, Dale didn’t record again for 30 years. Wildcat Tamer, which was released in 1999, hasn’t achieved the cult status of L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas but to the eyes and ears of this critic, was ‘n’ times better. Whereas on “L.A.”, one got the impression that Dale was trying too hard giving the record something of a forced quality, on “Wildcat” he relaxes into the music. Things seem unhurried; professional but not loose. The title track echoes the past in that the original was on the flip of Tarheel Slim’s Number 9 Train, but the in-your-face mix and the metallic tone of one of the two guitarists suggest something that could have been cut at any time in the last 20 years or so. Yup, the album is blues rock but it’s blues rock plus plus. Thoughts of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion might give way to a heady mix of Ray Wylie Hubbard and Bobby Charles (and yes it’s that name again, at least for a Summertime Down South which has all the grace and humidity of the Crescent City). The album is mainly Hawkins originals but good ones this time plus a few well chosen and well executed covers like Chuck’s Promised Land and Big Joe’s (Boogie Woogie) Country Girl with the latter effectively becoming Dale’s second tribute to the song given its much earlier appearance as Boogie Woogie Teenage Girl.

Two numbers which to me best exemplify the set are: the original (but with thematic origins lost in time) Goin’ Down The Road which is played straight and with superb work from the backing ensemble, and (Goodnight) Irene which always brings thoughts of Lead Belly and Jerry Lee (from his first album) to mind though it also brings a smile ‘cause this one definitely isn’t played straight.

 

“By the time the record ends, you may imagine you’ve felt the singer’s six decades in your bones and you may be wondering why he doesn’t. His voice is thin, flinty (I see Randy Johnson on the mound: unsightly, gangly, thoughtful, good-humored and dangerous); you can’t tell what the voice wants, just what it knows.” (Greil Marcus on ‘Wildcat Tamer’ and Randy Johnson is a baseball pitcher who played 22 major league seasons)

 

And …

Another album followed, Back Down To Louisiana in 2006, which was reportedly (Wiki) inspired by a trip to Shreveport – he was, at that time, living in Little Rock, Arkansas where much of Wildcat Tamer had been recorded. The album was very much “Tamer” Part 2; this was the title track.

In 2007, Dale was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.

He died on 13th February 2010 from colon cancer which had originally been diagnosed in 2005.

Of the rock’n’roll pioneers, Dale Hawkins didn’t have talent and/or presence oozing out of every pore like Presley and Little Richard. Nor could he knock out one killer song after another not to mention playing a guitar like ringing a bell like Berry. Sure, Dale could write songs but in general, not memorable ones. Sure, he could sing but with a voice that didn’t spring out from the turntable and lodge itself in your brain. What he and his studio-cum-road band of massed guitarists could do was create and execute arrangements, the qualities of which sometimes took a little longer to sink in to the grey matter but which had lasting appeal.

And there was that record. I have to own up to the fact that I wasn’t the dyed-in-the-wool Howlin’ Wolf fan that I later became when Susie-Q came out. I’d never heard of the Mighty Wolf in 1957/58 but nor had somewhere upwards of 95% of the record’s buyers. Hindsight hasn’t changed my view; there was invention involved in putting the building blocks of that record together which was arguably as impressive as the construction work that took place in the studio at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis on 5th July 1954 when Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama was subjected to a wholesale makeover. No, Susie-Q isn’t as important in historic terms as Elvis, Scotty & Bill’s That’s All Right, but no record is, period. But Susie-Q wasn’t exactly lacking in influence; the Stones cut it relatively early in their recorded oeuvre and John Fogerty managed to parlay a career out of it (and John, that was uncalled for, I love your version too).

The clip below is one of the relatively rare live ones from Dale. It’s evidently late in his career but no date is given. The rendition has a strong lived-in feel and Dale’s not bored no matter how many times he’d performed the song over the years:

 

Footnotes

1. He was born Delmar Allen Hawkins on 22nd August 1936 in Gold Mine, Louisiana but, after the split-up of his parents followed by the accidental death of his father when Dale was very young, he got shuffled between various relatives ending up in Bossier City (not a million miles from Shreveport) where he went to school. Jobs like delivering newspapers and working in cotton plantations gave him an income which enabled him to buy his first guitar, and the experience of working alongside black field hands pointed him strongly towards the type of music they listened to and played. He left school at the age of sixteen and spent 18 months in the US Navy. On his return he got a day job in Stan The Man’s Record Shop owned by Stan Lewis in Shreveport which gave him first hand access to the R&B hits of the day, and, in the evenings, started playing blues and R&B in clubs and bars in various bands operating in the Bossier City strip. According to Bill Millar, “This three-mile stretch was crammed with bars and honky tonks like the Hi-Lo, the Sho-Bar, the Boom Boom Room, the Nite Owl, the Skyway and the It’ll Do Club.” Other musicians working in those bands were often associated with the Louisiana Hayride, the C&W (as it was called then) radio show broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium. James Burton was but one of those musicians as also were the Lewis sisters, Margaret and Rose, who went on to work with Dale on many records.

Mention Dale’s friend Bobby Charles and his hit Later Alligator and you have a stage that is set for the start of Dale Hawkins’ recording career (and if you want to read more on Bobby C and Later Alligator see my Toppermost on the man). See You Soon Baboon was not an overly auspicious debut disc but was certainly a brash one. An answer record to the Charles ditty, the track together with its flip, Four Letter Word was cut at the KWKH studio in Shreveport in 1956 (day/month not given). Details on who was supplying the backing are scant; it is believed that a regular collaborator, John “Sonny” Jones, was the lead guitarist but nothing is forthcoming on the others including the over prominent sax player. Stan Lewis showed interest in the demo disc when it was played to him and agreed to pitch it to Leonard Chess who was a regular visitor to the record shop. One presumes that the appearance of (Eleanor) Broadwater and (Stan) Lewis in the writing credits were part of the deal between Hawkins and Lewis. Something similar happened on Susie-Q – Ms Goldwater was the wife of Nashville DJ Gene Nobles and her name was merely present to spread the royalties (but see also below) – and James Burton has never been credited for the riff. Anyway, regardless of all that, Chess agreed to release the record and it appeared on the Checker subsidiary of Chess in July 1956 and sank without too many traces. The ‘ape call’ at the start was added by Leonard Chess and it is believed to be the one used by Gene Nobles on his nightly radio show with the yelling coming from George Karsch, Noble’s engineer.

Dale and his mates paid another Shreveport radio station (KENT) a visit in 1956, and cut another demo, this time of an embryonic Susie-Q. The day/month again wasn’t logged but if the two sessionographies are correct, it was before the KWKH session. James Burton was present as was that cowbell (very clearly). The sax player was still around but was shown the door (and probably rightly so for the quality of the disc that emerged) in a session held at KWKH on 14th February 1957 to produce the release version. In addition to Burton, James “Sonny” Trammell was on bass, Ronnie Lewis was on drums and an unknown vocal group was present though Tapio – see below – gives a list of names who could have made up that group.

2. I had the luxury for Dale of having two sessionographies to consult: the first is the one referred to within the Wiki feature on Dale which was authored by Tapio Väisänen and the second came from the reliable Praguefrank.

3. Bill Millar isn’t the most well-known of rock and roots music writers which is a shame. In his introduction to “Let The Good Times Rock!”, Peter Guralnick makes the comment: “If I were looking for anyone to write a comprehensive history of early rock’n’roll, it would be Bill I would turn to first.” Unfortunately for us that never happened but some idea of the scope of Bill’s writing can be gleaned from Rock’s Back Pages covering a mammoth range of artists.

4. In addition to her session support role, Margaret Lewis was a performer (and song writer) herself. Ace Records UK have released two albums of the material she cut for Ram Records out of Shreveport, though regrettably for her, she never broke through to a national level. Reconsider Me with its intriguing mix of country blended with blues, is a good example of her output.

5. In his fine essay on Dale in TIMS Blackcat Rockabilly, Dik de Heer makes no mention of L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas which might be telling. He’s very unlikely to have been unaware of the album so the lack of comment could suggest that Dik isn’t too impressed with the content.

6. Wildcat Tamer was recorded over a series of sessions and there was a degree of variation in personnel with the core often consisting of the faithful Joe Osborn on bass, his son Dave on drums and Nick Devlin and Kenny Brown on guitars; the last-named specialised on slide and was a regular accompanist to R.L. Burnside. And a final observation on Wildcat Tamer: the album is so good that at an early stage in putting together the Ten I had tracks from it in my draft list but unfortunately that excellent intention went by the board as tracks from the Checker period took priority and there were even several of those I was exceedingly unhappy to reject.

7. In case anyone was wondering, Dale was the cousin of Ronnie Hawkins.

 

Dale Hawkins photo 2

Buddy Holly and Dale Hawkins

 

Dale Hawkins (1936–2010)

 

 

 

Rockabilly Hall of Fame: Dale Hawkins

Dale Hawkins Discography (Rockin’ Country Style)

Dale Hawkins at 45cat

Dale Hawkins biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Bobby Charles, Coasters, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ronnie Hawkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Earl King, Little Walter, Bob Luman, Mouse and the Traps, Michael Nesmith, Harry Nilsson, Jimmy Reed, Big Joe Turner

TopperPost #961

2 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jun 12, 2021

    I have a magnificent compilation called ‘country funk’ in which LA Memphis and Tyler Texas is one of the best tracks – and they’re all outstanding. Dale rocked and he rolled in the best way. Wonderful toppermost. Thanks again Dave.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jun 14, 2021

    Funnily enough I read this piece just after watching the documentary on The Band. Can’t remember if it featured Ronnie Hawkins’ take on ‘Suzie Q’ but it sent me back to it. Some pretty amazing guitar playing from Robbie – although it is hard to top the James Burton original. Also reminded me of what a magnificent song it is.
    A lot of other great music here too. Thanks.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓