Ronnie Hawkins, the rowdy rockabilly singer who was instrumental in forming pioneering American band The Band, died on Sunday. He was 87 years old.
His wife, Wanda, confirmed his death to The Canadian Press; she did not reveal the cause of death but said he was in poor health.
The band’s Robbie Robertson wrote on Facebook: “My heart sank when I heard ‘The Hawk’ fly off into the sunset. The band’s story began with Ronnie Hawkins. He was our mentor.
A feisty performer who earned the moniker “Mr. Dynamo” – he would also be known as “The Hawk” and “Rompin’ Ronnie” – Hawkins made a name for himself on the road, delivering blues covers , R&B and rock ‘n’ roll with courage and enthusiasm.A native of Arkansas, Hawkins cut his teeth playing in bands across the southern United States during the initial explosion of rock ‘n’ rock in the late 1950s, but he was closely associated with Canada, immigrating to the country in 1964, long after becoming a significant presence on its rock scene with his band the Hawks.
Over the years, many musicians have traveled the Hawks, including notable guitarists Roy Buchanan and Pat Travers, but they were all overshadowed by the lineup he assembled in the early 1960s, which included the five future members of the group: Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. By the mid-1960s they had parted ways with Hawkins, but their subsequent fame helped raise Hawkins’ profile. The group never missed an opportunity to pay tribute to their first benefactor, inviting him to take part in their 1978 farewell film “The Last Waltz” – he sang Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” – with Helm and Robertson writing liberally about him in their respective memoirs, “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “Testimony”.
Ronnie Hawkins was born on January 10, 1935 in Huntsville, Ark. Like Elvis Presley, born two days earlier, Hawkins developed a love for blues and R&B from an early age. Once his family moved to Fayetteville, Ark., when Ronnie was 9, his father Jasper opened a barber shop. There, Ronnie Hawkins befriended Buddy Hayes, a shoe shiner who moonlighted in a blues band. Hawkins began to immerse himself in blues, jazz and country. He formed his first bands while still in high school and continued to play music both as a physical education major at the University of Arkansas and during his brief stint in the military. While serving in the military in 1957, he played in a rock ‘n’ roll band called the Black Hawks, which consisted mostly of African-American musicians, making it one of the few racially incorporated at the time.
After leaving the military, Hawkins teamed up with guitarist Luke Paulman and began developing his outrageous show, filled with backflips and other stunts. Levon Helm, a drummer from the Helena, Ark. area, joined the Hawks while still in high school. Fellow musician Conway Twitty told Hawkins that Canadian audiences were craving rock ‘n’ roll, so he moved the Hawks north to Toronto, Ontario in 1958. The following year Hawkins signed with Roulette Records, breaking into the Canadian Top 10 with its debut single “Forty Days”, a variation of the Chuck Berry song “Thirty Days”. Its sequel “Mary Lou” gave Hawkins its only American hit later in 1959.
Robbie Robertson entered the Hawks’ orbit as a teenager, contributing two songs to Hawkins’ LP “Mr. Dynamo” and eventually becoming the band’s guitarist in 1960. In late 1961, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson had all joined the Hawks.
In early 1964, Hawkins’ band left the singer behind so they could play the role of Levon and the Hawks; they would soon be hired by Bob Dylan as a backing band on his 1965 Electrified Tour. After this mass departure, Hawkins officially moved to Canada and continued to play in the kind of clubs he called home. He revived his recording career in 1968 with a self-titled album which found him covering contemporary songwriters such as Dylan and Tim Hardin. More successful were a pair of albums for Cotillion – a second self-titled set, plus “The Hawk” – in the early 1970s, which found him tapping into country-rock.
Hawkins continued to record at a brisk pace during the 1970s, a decade which also saw him appear in films. Bob Dylan hired him to play “Bob Dylan” in his bizarre 1975 film “Renaldo and Clara,” and he starred in “The Last Waltz,” Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the band’s last gig in 1976. He also joined his friend Kris Kristofferson in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” western.
After hosting a Canadian variety show called “Honky Tonk” in the early 1980s, Hawkins continued to perform and record occasionally; his last album “Still Cruisin’” was released in 2002. He befriended Bill Clinton before becoming governor of Arkansas; Hawkins would later play Clinton’s presidential nomination in 1993.
During the last decades of his life, he won several industry accolades. He received the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award at the 1996 Juno Awards and was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2013, he was made an Honorary Officer of the Order of Canada.
Hawkins is survived by his wife Wanda and their three children, Ronnie Jr., Robin and Leah, as well as four grandchildren.