Can’t Hold Back The Hawk-Ronnie Hawkins rocks again

Cover Sept 3, 2010

I got a brand new chimney made on top,

Made out of human skulls.

Now come on darling let's take a little walk, tell me,

Who do you love, who do you love?
Bo Diddley

At the dawning of rock'n'roll in Toronto, seems the answer was always Ronnie Hawkins, a burly Arkansas roadhouse rocker who burst on the scene like a megaton cherry bomb and left a crater that occasionally still burns white hot. He’s been awarded, lauded, Hall Of Famed and credited with a game changing legacy which still resonates on the Canadian music scene.

With a career that’s been going for better than 50 years, it’s understandable we don’t get to see The Hawk soar that often.

Those of us in the GTA and anybody within driving range are in luck big time, as The Hawk takes wing Friday Sept.10 at Port Credit’s Blues & Jazz Festival.

Ronnie Hawkins has never been one to preach only to the converted so I know he’d understand when this story took a turn. It was meant to be a celebration of this most major dude, let folks know why they should make the trip to Port Credit to catch this rare Hawk sighting. But I kept bumping up against people born way on the wrong side of The Hawk’s glory days, facing off against blank stares. So what would The Hawk do? Why he’d take two steps back, then come forward with a major barrage of music and rock’n’roll moves that'd leave no doubt as to who they should love.

Hawkins in the T.Dot was the picture book sharp dressed man. Slicked-up rockabilly do, large cigars, hand-tooled cowboy boots and mohair suits the glowed like old money in the spotlight, he ruled the hipster scene from his upper floor club, the slyly named Le’ Coq D’Or. Working as Rompin' Ronnie, Mr. Dynamo and The Hawk, the man from Arkansas did not shy away from the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll even as he carved out a position as a major player in The Sixties Canadian rock scene.

Major dude status brought major money and Hawkins had him some fun with that, igniting a string of stories that would become the stuff of legend, like the one where he went to a Rolls Royce dealership , all scruffy beard, ratty jeans and beat-up boots. Wasn’t long before a sales guy came up to Hawkins with a million reasons why he shouldn’t be in his showroom, and don’t touch the car. Once the Hawk had laughed enough, he pulled out a horse-choking roll and paid for the Rolls on the spot.

Hawkins has a quote he pulls out when asked about the big bucks days. “Well, no denying I spent a lot on fast women, slow horses and fine whiskey. The rest I just kind of pissed away”.

Still and all, there was never any moss on this rolling stone; along the way he recorded more than twenty-five albums and had hit singles with "Forty Days”, "Mary Lou” and the iconic “Who Do You Love”. He revitalised the Toronto club scene with a residency at the Colonial Tavern which became the go-to gig in the city, owned or partnered in various live venues, made linkages between live music and radio and TV, with an eye to generating greater exposure. Even his notorious band of revolving door members became a finishing school for Canadian players too numerous to mention, and Hawkins found another niche to grow into, that of the talent scout and musician’s mentor.

Graduates of The Hawks went on to people such groups as Robbie Lane & The Disciples, Crowbar, Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band and of course, The Band.

Hawkins first arived in Toronto in 1958, acting on the good word he’d heard from Conway Twitty, backed by an all-American band of rockabilly road warriors. From his very first gig at the Brass Rail Tavern (still standing), Hawkins became an instant sensation. Shortly after, The Hawk began building his music empire in Toronto and in 1964, became a permanent Canadian resident. The original Hawks, not so much and one by one they drifted back south of the 49th. All except youngest member Levon Helm, whose daddy Hawkins had to petition to let the boy play that rock’n’roll.

“ Diamond Helm(Levon’s daddy) was a hard man and nobody to mess with. He didn’t mind so much Levon playing in my band, it was the moving to Canada part that got to him. Diamond looked me in tne eye and said: “"Canadia - You ever been to Canadia, Mr. Hawkins? It's cold all the time. They've got ten months of winter up there, and two months of bad sledding. Canadia - I don't know..."

What Hawkins told young Levon to get him all fired up went something like so: "It's a rough place, son. In fact, you have to puke twice and show your razor just to get in. Better grow some whiskers if you wanna go to Canada. I don't know how the hell I'm gonna get you into those clubs up there if you keep looking like a damn choirboy. Stick with me, son. Soon you'll be fartin' through silk."

Whenever things got tense in his bands, Hawkins would always rally the troops with his assurance that ‘the big time is just around the corner, boys’. ‘Course he never did say which corner but in this instance, with the band down to just him and Helm, he was as right in that regard as he would ever be.

The Americans were replaced by four Canadians, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, undoubtedly the finest lineup to ever back Ronnie Hawkins. And the only one to rise to greater heights than the Master himself, when they left to become The Band and re-write the book on American roots music. Never one to fold in the face of adversity, Hawkins repositioned himself in the international media as the man who made The Band and before long, it was back to cats beating on his door to join his crew and by 1969, had cemented his celebrity status by hosting John Lennon and Yoko Ono at his Mississauga home.

But beneath the rockarolla good ol’ boy was a man of considerable depth, much like his homie Bill Clinton who’s blown sax with The Hawk upon occasion. Ronnie Hawkins wasn’t inducted into Canada’s Walk Of Fame for his party antics, indeed not. For many years the man with the heart as big as his voice worked quietly behind the scenes in support of numerous charitable organisations, most notably the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario.

His good works were acknowledged big time on October 4th 2002, named Ronnie Hawkins Day in Toronto. His induction into Canada’s Walk Of Fame on that day had as much to do with his charitable work as it did his music. The membership in Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame are strictly about the music.

But there was yet another battle for the ol’ scrapper to fight and this one almost cost him his life. In fact, folks say Ronnie Hawkins recovery from and banishment of a case of pancreatic cancer was nothing short of miraculous. The cure has been attributed to everything from psychic healers to native herbal medicine. It’s all documented in the movie Ronnie Hawkins: Still Alive and Kicking. Those close to the Hawk say it may be all that plus the diamond-hard will of a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit. Which is why he’ll be taking the stage at Port Credit, backed by another band of hungry young guns. And you won’t be hearing dusty hitory all dresed up; you’ll hear the sound and the style that drove generations of young childs wild. For sure, you can bet the farm we won’t see his like in these parts again.

Through all the circus of it, Hawkins never lost his zest for quality musicianship. I suspect it’s a major force in making him still want to get on a stage nowadays.

"We were playing, not for the drunks, but for the musicians, because it was more intellectually challenging. We needed somewhere to put our energy to show that we were growing, and as we started to achieve this, people came to hear us musically."

Ronnie Hawkins
 on the Canadian incarnation of The Hawks
Lenny Stoute