Ronnie Hawkins, the southern rockabilly artist who moved to Canada and became godfather to a generation of influential rock musicians, has died aged 87.
His wife Wanda confirmed The Canadian Press that Hawkins died Sunday morning after a long illness.
“He left peacefully and looked as good as ever,” she said in a phone interview.
Known for his lively personality and enthusiastic stage presence, the singer of “Ruby Baby”, “Mary Lou” and Bo Diddley’s cover of “Who Do You Love” has earned several nicknames, including Mr. Dynamo, Sir Ronnie, Rompin’ Ronnie and the Falcon.
Hawkins was godfather to a generation of influential artists, including musicians he enlisted for his backing band The Hawks, who went on to play for Bob Dylan on his infamous 1966 tour when the folkster adopted the electric guitar.
Five Hawks members, including Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, would later form the band.
Although Hawkins clashed with some of his former bandmates, he joined the band onstage as part of their iconic 1976 farewell show captured in Martin Scorsese’s concert film “The Last Waltz.” Robertson would later recall in his memoir “Testimony” that Hawkins’ invitation was, in part, a tribute to his influence.
“He was really good at bringing together musicians he thought were the best,” Robertson said in a 2016 interview with The Canadian Press.
“It was like a bootcamp for musicians, learning about music and knowing when to do certain things and not do certain things. He just played a real pivotal role in all of this.
‘The Hawk’ Ronnie Hawkins returns to his musical roots in Fayetteville, Arkansas
Born in Arkansas in 1935, Hawkins joined the Army Reserve after high school while moonlighting in the Black Hawks, a band formed by fellow musician AC Reed.
After completing his military service, he opened the Rockwood Club in Fayetteville, Ark., which became a popular stopover for artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Conway Twitty.
He eventually gave himself the lead and started playing Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, creating a bad boy look with slicked back black hair and sideburns.
Appalled by several years of false starts in his own musical career, the singer-songwriter took Twitty’s advice to launch a Canadian tour in 1958. He swore the country was hungry for bands willing to play in small towns.
Without a recording contract in his native country, Hawkins saw Canada as “the promised land”—an untapped market to sell his Memphis sound and build his reputation to the point of crossover success in the United States. His instincts were right, and by the end of the decade, Hawkins had two Billboard Top 100 singles and appeared on “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.”
In his memoir, Robertson recounts seeing Hawkins perform for the first time at Dixie Arena in Toronto. His local band, the Suedes, were hired to open the gig, but he admits the show was easily robbed by the man who would become his mentor.
“It was the most violent, dynamic, primitive rock ‘n’ roll I had ever seen and it was addictive,” Robertson wrote.
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Many credit Hawkins – who had a fondness for designer cars, big aviator sunglasses, women and parties – with paving the way for budding Canadian artists to enter the American market.
“Most of them were starving,” Hawkins said. “Agents wouldn’t book a Canadian group.”
So Hawkins loaned his car, with American license plates, to bandleaders in an attempt to trick agents and club owners into paying for gigs.
“They were telling them they were from Scarborough – Tennessee,” he added.
Some called Hawkins “the father of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll” in part because he welcomed the idea of bringing young musicians into his circle.
One was teenage David Clayton-Thomas, who attended Hawkins’ shows at the Le Coq d’Or tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto in the hope that the fiery musician would invite him to sit down with his group.
It happened one afternoon when Hawkins gave her the opportunity to “sing a tune” on stage. The performance led to the bar owner offering Clayton-Thomas a longer gig years before he became the lead singer of Grammy-winning Blood, Sweat & Tears.
“That’s how it all started for me,” he said on Sunday. “Ronnie was very supportive.”
Later that year, when Clayton-Thomas’ teenage band disbanded, Hawkins was quick to offer his support.
“It was Christmas time and Ronnie said, ‘Well, you can’t be out of work for Christmas. Come on, work with my band. It ended up turning into a two-month gig at Le Coq d’ Gold singing with Ronnie’s band – Levon, Garth and the boys.
Not everyone was so lucky. Hawkins also had a reputation for rejecting underperformers or underlings who did not get along well with his band.
Grammy-winning producer David Foster was one of many to be kicked out by Hawkins for falling short of expectations.
“He said, ‘You look like a corpse on stage, I want people to look like you’re having fun. You’re not having fun doing my music,'” the Victoria-raised musician said during a interview in 2017.
“So he fired me, but we remained good friends. He’s just one of those guys who attracts good musicians… We always bow to him. He’s not a great musician, he’s not a great singer, he’s not a great songwriter – he’s a great artist and he’s full of life and he’s taught us all a lot.
In 1969, the year John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their famous bed-in in Montreal to campaign for peace, the couple stayed on Hawkins’ farm in Mississauga, Ontario for a few weeks. They later took Hawkins by train to Ottawa to see then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Lennon also recruited Hawkins as a peace envoy and together they went to China.
Throughout her career, Hawkins wrote approximately 500 songs and received numerous accolades and awards.
In 1982, he won a Juno for best male country singer for the album “Legend In His Spare Time”. He was honored with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in October 2002, where Tragically Hip’s Rob Baker thanked Hawkins for taking “aspiring musicians and marinating them”.
He was also a recipient of the Order of Canada in 2014.
In 2002, Hawkins had a cancerous tumor removed from his pancreas, just three months after undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery. The story was captured in the 2004 TV documentary “Ronnie Hawkins: Still Alive and Kickin'” in which he thought of a day meeting “the Big Rocker in the sky”.
Less than a month after the singer announced his recovery, former US President Bill Clinton, Foster and Paul Anka joined a group of Hawkins friends for a party in Toronto. The trio sang a tribute version of “My Way” to the rocker.
“He took me and my band around like we were family,” actor and singer Kris Kristofferson said during a 2002 Hawkins tribute.
“If there’s a rock ‘n’ roll god, I know he looks like this guy.”
From 1962 to 2017, Hawkins called a 175-acre property, including the 5,600-square-foot house, on Stoney Lake north of Peterborough. He sold most of the property for nearly $4 million and he and Wanda moved to Peterborough.
Hawkins Mansion for sale
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