Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly artist who mentored pre-fame members of the Band, died Sunday morning (May 29) at age 87.
“He went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever,” Hawkins’ wife, Wanda, told the CBC.
Born and raised in Arkansas, Hawkins started his first band, the Hawks, while attending the University of Arkansas. The group toured throughout the South, crossing paths with such famous names as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty.
It was Twitty who suggested Hawkins and his group start touring Canada, then considered a burgeoning market for rock stars. Hawkins played his first gig in Ontario in 1958 and soon decided to make Canada his permanent home.
The budding musician began releasing material, starting with the singles “Summertime” and “Hey! Bo Diddley” in ‘58. Hawkins’ debut album, a self-titled effort, arrived in 1959. It featured the singles “Forty Days” — a cover of the Chuck Berry song “Thirty Days” — and “Mary Lou” — originally by Young Jessie. Both of Hawkins’ renditions reached the Top 10 in Canada while charting on the Billboard Hot 100 in America as well (No. 45 and No. 26, respectively).
The Hawks lineup changed over the years, most notably featuring future members of the Band. Drummer Levon Helm joined the group in 1957, Robbie Robertson came on board in 1960, while Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson all arrived in 1961.
As the group’s leader, Hawkins was a perfectionist. In addition to constantly touring, the Hawks tirelessly rehearsed to become a tight unit.
“Playing with Ronnie Hawkins was like going to boot camp,” Robertson later recalled. “You worked really hard, really long hours, you learned the rules of the road, and you got your street education. Eventually, he built us up to the point where we outgrew his music and had to leave he shot himself in the foot, really, bless his heart, by sharpening us into such a crackerjack band that we had to go on out into the world, because we knew what his vision was for himself, and we were all younger and more ambitious musically.”
Helm, Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson left the Hawks in late 1963, forming their own group which would eventually become the Band.
Hawkins continued releasing material while remaining in the orbit of some of rock’s biggest stars. In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed at Hawkins’ Ontario home during the couple’s campaign for world peace. In 1975, Bob Dylan cast Hawkins to play the role of “Bob Dylan” in the film Renaldo and Clara. The following year, Hawkins joined the Band for their Thanksgiving Day farewell concert, now remembered as The Last Waltz thanks to the famous Martin Scorsese documentary. The Band would later thank Hawkins during their 1994 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Hawkins released 20 albums. He was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame, the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame and was made an Honorary Officer of the Order of Canada.
In later years, the rocker struggled with several health issues. Hawkins underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2002 and battled pancreatic cancer in 2004.
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