Rockabilly Legend Ronnie Hawkins Dies at 87

"The Hawk" mentored and performed with Canadian rock artists including the Band, Pat Travers and more

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished May 29, 2022

Ronnie Hawkins — the American rockabilly musician who made a home in Canada and helped launch the careers of some of the country's most influential rock musicians — has died. Hawkins' wife, Wanda Hawkins, confirmed to the Canadian Press that the artist died Sunday morning after a long illness. He was 87.

Known affectionately as "Mr. Dynamo," "Sir Ronnie," "Rompin' Ronnie," and "The Hawk," Hawkins is recognized both for his eye (and ear) for musical talent and mentorship of musicians recruited to join his backing band, the Hawks.

One such lineup featuring American Levon Helm and Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, would go on to form their own group, best known as the Band.

Hawkins' biography also notes other famous Hawk alumni including David Clayton Thomas of Blood Sweat and Tears, American actress Beverly D'Angelo, "Strange Animal" and future Styx lead vocalist Lawrence Gowan, Burton Cummings and David Foster.

Writer and critic Peter Goddard, who co-authored 1989's Ronnie Hawkins: Last of the Good Ol' Boys with the artist, described Hawkins as "Elvis, Santa Claus and Robert E. Lee all rolled into one; rock 'n' roll godfather to two generations of misfit musicians ... The one Yank Canadians happily claim as their own."

Born in Huntsville, AR, on January 10, 1935, Hawkins formed the first incarnation of the Hawks while studying at the University of Arkansas in the 1950s. After touring neighbouring states, Hawkins and the Hawks lined up performances in Canada at the suggestion of fellow Southern star Conway Twitty, making their Northern debut at the Golden Rail Tavern and the Grange Tavern in Hamilton, ON, in 1958.

Hawkins would make Ontario his home base soon after, signing with Roulette Records and making his debut with a self-titled album in 1959. Despite the stateside success of singles "Hey, Bo Diddley," "Mary Lou" and "Forty Days" (a rework of Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days"), and appearances on The Dick Clark Show and American Bandstand, Hawkins chose to remain in Canada, officially becoming a permanent resident in 1964.

The early decade would see an exodus of American players from Hawkins' band, save for fellow Arkansan Levon Helm — all of whom would be replaced by future members of the Band. Robbie Robertson, whom Hawkins had first seen playing with a group called the Suedes, was hired to play bass for the Hawks in 1960 before moving to guitar.

Rick Danko, who had previously opened for Hawkins with early band the Starlights, was invited to join as rhythm guitarist before being offered a position as bassist. Richard Manuel, who had opened for Hawkins as a member of the Revols, then joined on piano. Garth Hudson — who rejected an initial offer from Hawkins and Helm to join the band — was the last to come on board, on the condition that Hawkins buy him a Lowrey organ and that he be paid extra to impart his knowledge and musical training on the other members.

Helm, Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson left Hawkins' group in 1964 to found the Band. They would later reunite with their former bandleader in 1976 for The Last Waltz, inviting him onstage to perform his version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" He would later join the Band in 1990 onstage in Berlin as a guest of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall with a performance captured for live album The Wall – Live in Berlin.

Other Canadians Hawkins has performed and recorded with include members of Crowbar, Pat Travers, Jack DeKeyzer, Domenic Troiano, B.J. Cook, King Biscuit Boy, Tobi Lark, Bob McBride of Lighthouse and John Till (Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band).

In 1969, Hawkins famously hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono at his Mississauga farm house while the couple were campaigning for world peace. Of their time in Canadian winter, Hawkins would tell the National Post's Terry Ott, "We went outside snowmobiling, and I also had those six-wheel jiggers out there [ATV's] and John had never played in the snow or anything. Right after that, John ordered a few for his farm in New York. Remember at that time they were doing [the peace campaign] and he asked a few times if it was OK to go out and play in the snow, and [Yoko] didn't say anything and she was kind of hot at him for a day or two.

In the early '80s, Hawkins hosted music variety program Honky Tonk on CTV, welcoming guests including Johnny Nash, Bo Diddley, Conway Twitty and more. The decade would also see him capture the 1982 Juno Award for Country Male Vocalist of the Year, an award he was nominated for again in 1985.

In 1996, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) presented Hawkins with the Walt Grealis Special Achievement award, recognizing his contribution to developing Canada's music industry.

In 2013, Hawkins was named an Honorary Officer of the Order of Canada "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."

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