For more than four decades Ronnie Hawkins was a fixture on the Ontario music scene. The Arkansas-born Hawkins formed a band called the Hawks in his home state and toured with them, but by 1958 he came to Ontario and started playing rooms like the Grange Tavern in Hamilton, where Conway Twitty had found success. In the early 1960’s Ontario Liquor laws left the issue of allowing nightclubs up to the municipalities and many Ontario cities started opening clubs, creating a surplus of musical gigs for performers like Ray Hutchison, Ray Smith (another transplanted Rockabilly singer from the US), Charlie Eckstein, some fake Drifters and Platters groups and many others—but Hawkins was the king of them all, performing in a circuit that included Windsor, Chatham, London and Toronto. In Toronto Hawkins took over the second floor of the Coq d’or Tavern on Yonge street and renamed it the Hawk’s Nest and performed in engagements that sometimes went on for months at a time. He is best Known for mentoring the backup group that went on to be the Band, backing Bob Dylan, but he also worked with many other performers including Rick Bell and John Till (who left to join Janis Joplin’s band in L.A.), all the original members of Crowbar, blues singer King Biscuit Boy, Larry Gowan and David Foster.
Of money Hawkins once said, “I spent ninety percent of my money on wine, women and song and just wasted the other ten percent.” Growing up in Chatham I remember his Rolls Royce parked outside the William Pitt Hotel, were the band played the Turf Room. Later, during an inconclusive sojourn at Western University where I was studying undergraduate journalism, the campus paper the Gazette, assigned me to do a feature interview with Hawkins who was performing at Campbells—a London rock joint. It was my very first foray into the craft and wildly unsuccessful. A photographer and I arrived before Hawkins’ first set. He was very hospitable and showed us to a good table. Hawkins’s favoured drink at that time was a double Hennessy’s brandy with a beer chaser. “Drinks are on me, boys,” he said. And so we followed suit, taking his lead with the brandy and beer. He returned to our table between each set and we continued to enjoy his hospitality. The rest is a blank. I believe I asked him if he knew Bob Dylan. When it came time to do the story, I had no notes and not much memory of the evening. It would be more than a decade before I returned to journalism.
At CHCH in the 1980’s Hawkins, who was in and out of Hamilton on a fairly regular basis, would pop up in various news stories from time to time. He was always approachable and good for a quote. People still talk about the time he played a halftime show at a Ticats game and thanked the show sponsor DEE FASCO. When fellow Arkansan William Jefferson Clinton became President of the United States, he invited Hawkins to the Inauguration. We at CHCH piggy-backed on the opportunity and arranged for a camera crew and a video link and Hawkins became our red-carpet reporter. Those were the days when newsrooms had budgets.
Ronnie Hawkins was still doing 150 dates a year when he was in his 60’s. While he had left the US at a young age, he still managed to place a couple of recordings on the Billboard charts for Roulette Records, with “Forty Days” and Mary Lou”–both in the top 100 but well out of the top 10. According to the website Torontoist, Morris Levy, head of Roulette Records, was effusive with praise. “Ronnie was the one,” Levy claimed. “He moved better than Elvis, he looked better than Elvis and sang better than Elvis, but he left for Canada when he was on the verge of universal acclaim. He just vanished.” Hawkins did a version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” featuring a screaming guitar solo by Robbie Robertson for Roulette. He also cut a nice version of “The Old Man Came Home From the Forest,” written by his buddy Gordon Lightfoot. On May 2, 2013, Hawkins was made an Honorary Officer of the Order of Canada. He was invested on May 7, 2014. The citation read:
“For his contributions to the development of the music industry in Canada, as a rock and roll musician, and for his support of charitable causes. For more than 50 years, musician Ronnie Hawkins has demonstrated a strong devotion to Canada’s music industry. Often referred to as the “father of Canadian rock n’ roll”, he was a key player in the 1960s rock scene, with his band The Hawks serving as a launching pad for a host of Canadian musicians. In addition to producing scores of singles and albums, he has performed in support of many charitable causes, notably the Peterborough Flood Relief and the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario.”
Ronnie Hawkins was 87 when he died Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.