In a recent post about singer/songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire, Robbie Robertson (which you can read here), I talked about how his career really took off because of the mentorship of a man named Ronnie Hawkins. It was because of Hawkins that the members of The Band initially were brought together. Needless to say, Hawkins must have been a pretty good teacher because The Band sure went on to have a highly successful and important career. The members of The Band never forgot the lessons they learned from Hawkins. He was invited to perform with them during their final live show, The Last Waltz. They also name dropped him during their acceptance speech when they were inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Finally, when Hawkins died in 2022 from cancer, Robbie Robertson gave him a fine formal send off via social media. But who exactly was Ronnie Hawkins beyond being the man who helped The Band to get their start? Well, he was a larger than life character in a business that often values predictability more than individuality. Ronnie Hawkins was a peer to many of the originators of rock n’ roll such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. He was an American who became a Canadian citizen. Perhaps most importantly, Ronnie Hawkins was a man who practiced what he preached when it came to exercising his principles of humanity and inclusivity by working to integrate the music industry, particularly in the US Southern states long before laws dictated that it be so. Hawkins was a man with a big laugh and a big heart. Here is his story.
Ronnie Hawkins was born in the state of Arkansas in 1935. His family eventually settled in Fayetteville where he was raised by music loving parents. Hawkins completed high school, graduated from college and enrolled in ROTC training with the U.S. military. It was while participating in his Officer training that an incident occurred which changed his life and set him on the path for which he became famous. One evening Hawkins, who was barely into his twenties, was enjoying a cold drink in the officer’s lounge when a group of African American musicians picked up instruments and climbed onto the stage. Then the band began to play. They played a combination of R & B, Soul and Blues. Hawkins, who had been raised on Country music, had never heard anything like the sounds emanating from that stage that night. The music sounded primal and vital. It struck Hawkins deep within his soul. Hawkins listened to their full set that night and then again, for another four consecutive nights. On the final night that they were to appear in the Officer’s lounge, Hawkins approached the band and asked if he could sing with them on stage. He informed them that he had a musical background. I am not sure what these performers thought of this white boy who thought he could swing with them, but they gave him a shot. When the music began to play, Hawkins launched into the songs with a level of enthusiasm that might have made Little Richard blush. He whooped and he hollered, he pranced around the stage and his voice rang out like artillery fire! In the early 1950s when this performance occurred, it was not common for bands to be integrated in public nor for there to be so much emotion and swagger on display. Not to give Ronnie Hawkins more credit than he deserves, but it was performances like this that helped pave the way for the introduction of that “devil’s music” known as rock n’ roll. If that performance was an audition, then Ronnie Hawkins passed the test. He joined the band, which became known as The Nighthawks. Unfortunately, the southern U.S. was not ready to embrace a band like The NIghthawks for a variety of societal and political reasons, and their tenure as a band was short lived. But the experience of playing a new brand of music that had such jump and such soul had supercharged Hawkins. He would never end up serving in the U.S. Army. Instead, this marked the start of a life lived on the road. It was a journey shared with many of the biggest names in music. The first of those big names was a teenage drummer named Levon Helm.
As many of you may know, Levon Helm gained fame and fortune as the drummer and one of the lead singers for The Band. As a teenage boy, Helm also grew up in Arkansas. Because Ronnie Hawkins was from there, too, Helm would often see him as he traveled across the state performing at county fairs and the like. In those days, Hawkins performed under the first of many iterations of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Helm was impressed by the energy of the music and the charisma of Hawkins as a frontman. Levon Helm was a drummer of some local renown in his high school, so one time when he crossed paths with Hawkins, he asked to audition. Hawkins was impressed with the young man’s skills. But, because Helm was underage, Hawkins could not give him a job yet. But he did meet Helm’s parents and negotiated a contract that stated that after Helm completed high school, he would take him under his wing and teach him to be an excellent drummer. If Helm developed his skills highly enough, then Hawkins would take him out on the road with his band. Levon Helm’s parents succumbed to Hawkins’ charm and signed their son away to grow up under his care. Not too long after that, a young guitarist from Toronto named Robbie Robertson would sell his only guitar in exchange for a bus ticket to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Robertson had seen Ronnie Hawkins and the original Hawks perform in Toronto and was hooked. He ended up boarding with Helm at his parents’ home. Like Helm, Robertson wished to travel with Hawkins’ band and learn about this new music called rock n’ roll. Robertson auditioned for Hawkins by playing some guitar for him and writing him two original songs. Robbie Robertson was accepted into the fold. Together, he and Levon Helm moved into a motel complex under Hawkins’ care that served as a form of musical bootcamp. While at the motel, Hawkins had his charges rehearse for hours on end. He also introduced them to the music of performers such as Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Mahalia Jackson, Big Mama Thornton and many others as well. Robertson and Helm listened to those records for hours at a time. They analyzed the structure of the musical arrangements and did their best to capture the essence of the timing and the emotion of the lyrics. Eventually, the original Hawks disbanded, and Robertson and Helm were given full-time gigs. In order to fill out the roster, Hawkins hired three other young men named Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. The new Hawks were ready for the road and for a life that eventually saw them become The Band.
Once Roberston, Helm and the rest of The Band left Hawkins to start out on their own, Ronnie Hawkins was at odds with himself. He was growing tired of trying to keep a backing band together, and didn’t quite know what to do next. As it turned out, he happened to come into contact with rising Country star and friend, Conway Twitty. After a few pops together, Twitty advised Hawkins to head to Canada because, in Twitty’s words, Canada seemed more receptive to this new style of music that Hawkins played. Twitty said that there was a whole network of clubs in and around Toronto and Montreal that would welcome him and support him while he figured out his next move. Hawkins and Twitty shook hands and said goodbye. Then Ronnie Hawkins headed north to Canada. At the time, Hawkins figured it would just be a temporary measure. But, once he arrived in Canada, he fell in love with the place and stayed for the rest of his life, eventually taking out Canadian citizenship..
While in Canada, he bought a nightclub in Toronto called Le Coq d’Or that served as home base for him and his band, as well as any number of other musicians and bands who played Rock n’ Roll, Soul, R & B, Gospel and, of course, The Blues. During its heyday, the club became one of the hippest live music venues in Toronto. It was while Hawkins was running his nightclub that he had one of most noteworthy Canadian experiences. In the early 1970s, Hawkins and his wife were living just west of the city in Mississauga. Musicians who happened to be in town often paid Hawkins a call, and many even stayed in his home. One such celebrity was former Beatle, John Lennon. After The Beatles broke up, Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, were looking for somewhere to hold a peaceful anti-war, pro-peace protest. After many ups and downs, the couple ended up coming to Canada. When they first arrived, they stayed with Ronnie Hawkins in Mississauga. Hawkins and Lennon both loved Blues-based Rock n’ Roll and played together for days. Lennon even cut some promotional ads for Hawkins to use on the radio for his club. In order to boost the credibility of their protest, Lennon and Ono were seeking a meeting with then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Hawkins agreed to act as intermediary. Together, the three friends traveled in secret aboard a train and arrived in Ottawa. A meeting with Trudeau was arranged. Afterwards, Hawkins let it slip that there may have been a shared marijuana cigarette passed around during their talks. Oh my! From there, Hawkins helped Lennon and Ono make it to Montreal where they held their famous Bed-in For Peace from which the song “Give Peace a Chance” was performed for the first time. *(You can read a post about that here). That experience with Lennon and Ono changed Hawkins. He saw how the duo used their public platform for good and it impressed him. Going forward, Ronnie Hawkins often dedicated portions of the rest of his life to campaigns around the world that involved peace-oriented and other humanitarian causes.
Eventually, Ronnie Hawkins and his wife, Wanda, found a home in the Peterborough region of Ontario, in an area called Stoney Lake. Hawkins dubbed their new home as Hawkstone Manor. As it was in Mississauga, Hawkstone Manor soon became a magnet for all manner of musicians who happened to be passing through, who needed some down time to recharge and rejuvenate themselves and/or who simply wanted to spend some time in the company of the gregarious Hawkins and his family. Life was good. Ronnie Hawkins has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and was a recipient of the Order of Canada. He passed away in 2022 at age 87. But during his time on this planet, Hawkins impacted many lives through his mentorship, his promotion of a form of music that many in society frowned upon, his willingness to work with all manner of musicians regardless of colour or racial background and his warm, friendly personality, which charmed everyone who had the good fortune to meet the man. He was a straight-shootin’, cart-wheelin’, camel walkin’, rock’ n roller and the world is better because of it.
The link to the official website for Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Who Do You Love” by Bo Diddley, as covered by Ronnie Hawkins and performed with The Band during The Last Waltz can be found here.
The link to a story about the importance of the Le Coq d’Or nightclub that was owned by Ronnie Hawkins can be found here.
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