- 29 May 22
Ronnie Hawkins was an inspirational figure in music in Canada, kickstarting the career of The Band, when the members came together in his backing outfit, The Hawks and generally spreading the love of great music. He died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer...
It is with great sadness that the world of rock ’n’ roll learned today of the death of Ronnie Hawkins. He died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, at the age of 87.
Born in 1935, he was one of the original wild men of the scene that exploded in the 1950s. From Arkansas in the United States of America, he began his performing career in 1956, releasing his eponymous debut album in 1959. He moved to Toronto in Canada and became a major force in music in his adopted home.
"You know, I don't know anything about Canadian politics, the price of wheat or Niagara Falls,” he famously said in a CBC Telescope documentary. "But I sure do know one thing: I dig it up here."
He toured with his band in the guise of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, with Levon Helm joining on drums in 1957. In 1960, Robbie Robertson joined the troupe to play bass guitar. And in the Autumn of 1961, Robertson switched to lead guitar, with Rick Danko taking up bass guitar duties. Later that same year, Richard Manuel replaced Stan Szelest on piano, with Garth Hudson joining soon afterwards.
Therein was contained the original line-up of the musical unit that took the name The Band. However, before they announced themselves under that identity, they had worked as Bob Dylan’s backing band, most notably on the 1966 electric tour which inspired much hostility from die-hard folkies. They played the Adelphi Cinema in Dublin on May 5, 1966.
Ronnie Hawkins meanwhile carried on, recording over 25 albums during a career that was never less than colourful. He had numerous hits, including covers of Chuck Berry’s ’Thirty Days’ (renamed by Ronnie as ‘Forty Days’ – perhaps a biblical reference!); Young Jessie’s ‘Mary Lou’;’Susie Q’ – written by his cousin Dale Hawkins and also covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival – and ‘Hey Bo Diddley’.
He was immortalised for the wider music public when he appeared in The Band’s final concert – and film – The Last Waltz. In it he strutted onstage with the cry “Big time!, Big time!” before launching into a typically lascivious-sounding version of his best known track ‘Who Do You Love’. For aficionados, it remains one of the great turns, in what was a thoroughly star-studded movie.
Hawkins also played the character ‘Bob Dylan’ in the Dylan road movie Renaldo and Clara – an acknowledgement of the fact that Hawkins had brought together the musicians in Dylan’s most famous backing outfit.
But there is no doubting the debt that he was owed by The Band – and indeed by Canadian rock ’n’ rollers in general. Ronnie Hawkins was an inspiration – but he was also a talent-spotter, attracting great musicians to his own band, as well as drawing them to the attention of record companies and prospective managers across North America.
Like many musicians of his generation, his music ranged across rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, swamp, rhythm and blues, soul, country, bluegrass and folk. He won many awards and accolades in a long and industrious career.
Variously known as the Hawk, Rompin' Ronnie and Mr. Dynamo, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2004. He was also inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and he received an honorary Order of Canada appointment in 2014.
He is survived by his wife Wanda. "He went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever," she told CP in an interview.
It is a fine epitaph for a man who gave his life to music – and did so with real style.