Ronnie Hawkins and ME Writer Roman Mitz
by Roman Mitz
Ronnie Hawkins was an enigma. He was a good ol’ boy from Arkansas but when he pulled on his cowboy boots and hit the stage he became a premier rockabilly shouter and self-described “matinee idol.”
Ronnie passed away at age 87 but he leaves more memorable moments than most people would live in 10 lifetimes. He relocated at an early age to Toronto, his adopted hometown, and soon became a regular at such haunts as the Le Coq d’Or or the Colonial Tavern on the Yonge Street strip. He would never forget the key people from the early days like Sam, the doorman at the le Coq d’Or, who Ronnie would still give shout-outs at much later shows.
Of course, his first order of business in the early ’60s would be to find a backing band and his first group, The Hawks, would be a world-beater as it contained the future members of what would become one of Canada’s most renowned outfits, The Band. (With the lone non-Canadian being fellow Arkansas native Levon Helm on drums). Ronnie was apparently a tough taskmaster, but this brought out the best in musicians like Robbie Robertson who developed his signature guitar sound under The Hawk’s tutelage.
But with that stern leadership came a ton of laughs courtesy of his larger-than-life sense of humour. “Don’t leave now,” he would tell the crowd. ”We’ll get better…if you drink enough.” And there were so many trademark introductions to songs like “Forty Days” where he announced that “This is the one that took us from the hills and the stills and put us on the pills.”
In the latter ’70s, Ronnie put together another stellar band featuring Stan Szeleste on piano, King Biscuit Boy on harmonica, and Jack DeKeyzer on guitar. While he never had any chart-toppers, songs like “Bo Diddley” and “Who Do You Love” became rock & roll staples. Perhaps his best album was a 1970s self-titled effort which featured many of his concert staples plus a wicked turn from Duane Allman on “Down In The Alley”. If you’re lucky enough to find it, there is a promotional 45 for the song which features a spoken intro by Beatle John Lennon in which he extolls the virtues of The Hawk. Lennon and his wife Yoko famously spent a week on Hawkins’ Mississauga farm in 1969.
Ronnie was larger than life both onstage and off and his persona would sometimes cause people to pigeon-hole him. A legendary story from the early days finds him walking into a Cadillac dealership where an arrogant salesman proceeded to treat The Hawk like some backwoods hillbilly. Ronnie apparently paid cash for a car, but he deducted the salesman’s commission from the total.
Later in his career, The Hawk also became involved in a couple of film projects, notably “Heaven’s Gate” with Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan’s “Renaldo and Clara”, both of which were critical and box office bombs. Far more memorable was his reunion with The Band and his stellar performance in their swan song concert and film “The Last Waltz”. Ronnie also had some small-screen success hosting the CTV variety show called Honky Tonk which featured a wide range of musical guests including Tony Joe White, Johnny Nash, and David Wilcox.
Through all of these various endeavours, you would always hear Ronnie using the catch-phrase “The big time is just around the corner.” While that may not have quite happened for him he will always be remembered for his role in bringing Rock ‘n’ Roll to Toronto and becoming the city’s first musical architect.