A Musical Appreciation ► Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins

DATELINE January 10, 1935 – Ronald “Rompin’ Ronnie” Hawkins is born in Huntsville, Arkansas, just two days after Elvis Presley is born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Both carved out quite a niche in Rock and Roll, but Elvis’ story is better known. That’s a shame.

Ronnie Hawkins started his first band when he was studying Phys Ed at the University of Arkansas. Called The Hawks, it toured throughout several southern states. On the advice of Conway Twitty, who was one of the up and coming Rock and Rollers who played at a club Hawkins owned in Fayetteville, he began playing in Canada in 1958. The first place he played in Canada was the last place I lived in Canada: Hamilton, Ontario. Apparently he was a huge hit at the Golden Rail, near the corner of King and John Streets. It was this initial success that prompted Hawkins to move to Canada.

The Hawks were less thrilled with Canada and they all quit and went back to ‘Merka, except for Levon Helm, the good ol’ boy drummer. Ronnie Hawkins was forced to recruit a new set of Hawks. He found some good ol’ Ontario boys in Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. This version of The Hawks was rehearsed within an inch of their lives by Hawkins, a notorious perfectionist. When, some 5 or 6 years later, this tight group of Hawks up and quit on Hawkins, they changed their name to The Band and worked with some barely known folk singer named Bob Dylan in a barely known town in upper New York named Woodstock.

This is why, in homage to their early mentor, Ronnie Hawkins appeared at The Last Waltz.

When the band called The Hawks quit to become The Band, Hawkins hired a new band, which he called “And Many Others.” When, some 4 years later, Hawkins fired “And Many Others” they took the name Crowbar. This was also in homage to Hawkins who told them as he sacked them, “You guys are so crazy, you could fuck up a crowbar in 3 seconds.”

Crowbar became one of Canada’s best-known bands, who had a huge hit in 1971 with “Oh, What A Feeling.”

John Lennon & friends bundled against the Canadian cold

I wasn’t as lucky as John Lennon, who hung out at Ronnie’s farm signing his Bag One lithographs while planning a peace festival. However, I was still fortunate enough to meet Ronnie Hawkins twice. Both times he had me laughing so hysterically, my sides hurt.

The first was soon after he appeared as a special guest vocalist on a spoken word LP by Xaviera Hollander, still in the flush of success following the publication of The Happy Hooker: My Own Story. Hawkins was helping her promote the GRT release and appeared on my show at Radio Sheridan, the college campus station. During the interview he swore more than I had ever heard anyone swear before, telling one obscene joke after another.

This was only a week after Xaviera Hollander simulated giving me fellatio under the table during her interview about the LP. As Station Manager I was called on the carpet for the “inappropriate” content of the Hollander interview. Now Ronnie Hawkins had me in stitches and he was being far more obscene than Xaviera had been. As I doubled over in side-splitting laughter, I couldn’t help but think the administration was going to revoke our license to operate. Luckily nothing happened. Either the admin didn’t get wind of it, or John Bromley decided we were a lost cause.

The next time I ran into Ronnie Hawkins was more than 15 years later. I was working at Citytv by then and heard a loud voice coming from a room that was normally locked and used for storage. I peeked inside and Ronnie Hawkins was pacing the room all by himself, rehearsing some words that he was expected to tape for MUCHMusic, which was broadcast out of the same building. He noticed me in the doorway and stopped, so I reintroduced myself to him and reminded him of the interview and how much I feared being called up in front of the administration for it, but it would have been worth it.

While not acknowledging whether he remembered me or not, he started off on a series of obscene one-liners that didn’t stop until he was fetched 15 minutes later for his close-up.

There are two stories I’ve heard about Ronnie Hawkins and I pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster neither of them are apocryphal:

After Ronnie Hawkins had his first brush with fame, he decided he deserved a Rolls Royce. He went to the Rolls Royce dealer on Bay Street in Toronto looking like a Hippie and the saleman treated him like something that had stuck to the bottom of his shoe. He wouldn’t even let Hawkins have a test drive. Imagine that! Hawkins left and came back a short time later. He slapped — in cash — the asking price of a Rolls Royce on the hood of one and drove it out of the showroom.

The second story is from when Hawkins was hiring the [not yet] The Band to be The [replacement] Hawks. As incentive he apparently said, “Sign up with me boys and you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”

Happy Birthday, Ronnie Hawkins!!!

Here’s a Ronnie Hawkins documentary for those who want to know more:

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.

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