Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas-born rock and roll legend who mentored the Canadian and American musicians who later became known as the band has passed away.
His wife, Wanda, said Sunday that Hawkins, described in the tribute as the most important rock ‘n’ roll musician in Canadian history, has died at the age of 87 after falling ill.
“He left safely and looked as good as ever,” she told the Canadian press.
And in honoring Hawkins on Sunday, band member Robbie Robertson said Hawkins taught him and his bandmates “the rules of the road.”
“Not only was he an amazing artist, bassist and bandleader, he had an unparalleled sense of humor,” Robertson said in a statement posted to Twitter. “Strange Fall and totally unique. Yes, God created only one of them. He will live on in our hearts forever. My deepest condolences to his family.”
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood tweeted the news, saying it was “so sad to hear”.
Burley Hawkins was born on January 10, 1935 (two days after the birth of Elvis Presley) in Huntsville, Arkansas.
Nicknamed “The Hawk,” he took a hit with Mary Lou and Odessa, and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas that hosted early rock stars such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Conway Tweety.
“Hawkins is the only guy I’ve ever heard sing a song as sweet and sexy as My Gal is Red Hot sound shabby,” Grill Marcus wrote in his popular book on American music and culture, Mystery Train, adding, “He knows more backstreets, backrooms, and backends than any A man from Newark to Mexicali.
Hawkins, who called himself “King of Rockabilly” and “Mr. Dynamo” had neither Presley or Perkins gifts, but he had ambition and his eye for talent.
His first performance in Canada was in the late 1950s, and he realized that he would stand out more in a country where original rock hardly existed. Canadian musicians often moved to the United States to advance their careers, but the American Hawkins rarely attempted to reverse.
Hawkins with fellow Arkansan drummer Levon Helm assembled a Canadian backing group that included guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and bassist Rick Danko. They became Hawks, and were educated at the Hawkins School of Rock.
“When the music went too far for Rooney’s ear, or he couldn’t decide when to sing, he told us no one but Thelonious Monk could understand what we were playing,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1978. But the great thing about it is that it allowed us to practice and practice a lot. We often play until 1 am and then train until 4 am..”
Robertson and his friends supported Hawkins from 1961 to 1963, performing wild across Canada and recording a howling cover of Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love, which became one of Hawkins’ most famous songs.
But Hawkins didn’t sell many records and the Hawks passed their leader. They joined Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s and were stars in their own right by the end of the decade, renaming the band.
Meanwhile, Hawkins settled in Peterborough, Ontario and had a handful of top 40 bachelors there, including Bluebirds in the Mountain and Down in Alley.
Canadian music journalist and blogger Eric Alper wrote on Sunday that Hawkins will be greatly missed.
“Ronnie Hawkins, the most important rock ‘n’ roll rocker in Canadian history, has passed away at the age of 87,” Alber wrote. “The band, Dale Hawkins, Bob Dylan and thousands more wouldn’t be the same without him. The music wouldn’t be the same. We’ll miss him so much and thank you Hawk.”
He couldn’t keep up with the latest sounds—he was horrified when he first heard Canadian Neil Young—but in the late 1960s he became friends with John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. They stayed with Hawkins, his wife Wanda, and three children while they were visiting Canada.
“At the time I thought I was doing them a favor,” he later told the National Post. “I thought the Beatles were a lucky English group. I didn’t know much about their music. I thought Yukos was (stupid). To this day I’ve never heard of a Beatle album. For $10 billion I couldn’t name a single song on Abbey Road. I never got on the Beatle album and I’ve listened to in my life. Never. But John was so powerful. I admire him. He wasn’t one of those wonderful people, you know.”
Hawkins also stayed in touch with the band, and in 1976 was a guest at the All-Star Farewell Party that formed the basis of Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz.
He’s back in power for a few moments, smiling and curling up under his Stetson hat, shouting “Big time, big time” to his former subordinates as they navigate Who Do You Love.
In addition to The Last Waltz, Hawkins has also appeared in Dylan Rinaldo and Clara, the big-budget film Heaven’s Gate, and Hello Mary Lou. Dan Aykroyd narrated a 2007 documentary about Hawkins and Alive and Kickin and included a feature film by another famous Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
Hawkins’ albums included Ronnie Hawkins, The Hawk and Can’t Stop Rockin’, a 2001 release that featured Helm and Robertson on the same song, Blue Moon in My Sign. Helm and Robertson stopped speaking after their feud after The Last Waltz and recorded their contributions to separate studios.
Over time, Hawkins mentored many young Canadian musicians who went on to thrive, including guitarist Pat Travers and future guitarist Janis Joplin, John Tell.
He received several honorary awards from his adopted country and was a member of the Order of Canada in 2013 “for his contribution to the development of the music industry in Canada as a rock and roll musician and for his support of philanthropy”.