[Band Bites by Caol Caffin]
For Rick, with love

Ronnie Hawkins Talks About "The Boys" -- Then and Now

by Carol Caffin

BandBites, Volume I, No. 5, April 15, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Carol Caffin. All Rights Reserved.

The new Ronnie Hawkins documentary Still Alive And Kickin' was released in January 2007. The DVD is available from Amazon.

Read more about Ronnie Hawkins at the official The Hawk website:

I first interviewed Ronnie Hawkins nearly 20 years ago for what became an in-depth Q&A in the record-collectors' rag, DISCoveries. The piece, titled "Who Do You Love?" and scaled down from about 15,000 words, was, at that time, one of the most comprehensive published articles anywhere that focused almost entirely on The Band's formative years. Much like The Band's tenure with Ronnie, that interview, for me, was akin to boot camp. What I thought was going to be a 15 to 20-minute phoner ended up being a nearly three-hour marathon, but Ronnie put me at ease immediately. He just kept talking and I got the sense that it didn't much matter what I asked him -- he was going to say what he wanted to say. Ronnie was warm and charismatic, quick-talking and quick-witted, with an abundance of stories about "the boys," as he called them, that he not only was willing to share but, it seemed, almost needed to share.

The timing was perfect: that interview was done on the cusp of a burgeoning renewed interest in The Band -- from old fans who missed their authenticity and realized that The Band still had a lot of great music in them and had not, perhaps, been ready to end it all with a last waltz; and from a new generation of fans who were being exposed to the "old" music by their parents and older siblings, and who would soon hear The Band's influence in the sounds of bands like the Wallflowers and Blue Rodeo and Counting Crows, and even sampled by groups as seemingly unlikely as Gang Starr.

Rick told me he loved the interview and asked for copies so that he could give them to Levon and Garth. I was a little nervous; The Band was big on privacy, very enigmatic, and Ronnie had spilled his guts -- talking about all the stuff that, at that time, being still new to The Band world, I thought was "taboo" -- like orgies, for instance, which he cleverly euphemized as "seven or eight people in love." (Of course, I did not know at the time about Ronnie's infamous "strip of meat" comment to Rolling Stone many years earlier.) Rick allayed my fears, though, told me everyone would love it, and it seemed that all was well. He also suggested that I meet Ronnie in person. "Uh, no thanks," I said. "I know all I need to know!"

Ronnie was happy with the interview and, after it was published, he invited me to Canada. My best friend Dana and I decided to make a full-blown excursion out of the trip, starting out in Woodstock and heading north. That was a week of many firsts. It was the first time I met Elliott Landy, who took us to his house, which, from my city-girl perspective, seemed to be the quintessential hippie lair, and showed us his incredible Band and Dylan photo archives and became an instant friend.

When we got to Toronto, we were greeted warmly by Ronnie and his wife, Wanda. Ronnie performed with the Hawks that night and, afterward, he and Wanda hosted a huge barbecue, where they introduced us to many people whose names have since escaped me. It was there that I first met Terry Danko, who was talented, shy, sweet, and adorable. He performed as one of Ronnie's Hawks and, though he bore a definite resemblance to his big brother, he had a style all his own.

When I came back to Woodstock, Rick asked me what I thought of Ronnie. "He's a dirty old man," I said, only half-kidding -- that was back in my early days in The Band world, when I was still capable of being shocked. His response: an all-knowing Danko Chuckle.

Several weeks ago, I called Ronnie and asked him if he'd be willing to do an interview for BandBites. His response was much the same as it had been two decades ago: "Of course, darlin' -- I'll tell ya anything ya wanna know about Ricky and the boys. You just call me when you're ready, okay?" He sounded just a tad older, but still as quick as a whip. "How are you feeling, Ronnie? How's your health these days?" I asked. "Well, you know, dear, I can't even chase girls anymore," he told me. Then he corrected himself. "Well, I'm still chasin' em -- it's just that they're all in walkers and wheelchairs now!"

Ronnie loves talking about The Band -- always has. I guess in some ways, they'll always be "his" boys. And he's as warm and friendly and funny as ever. But within just a few minutes of starting this interview, I realized that, regardless of the questions I asked, Ronnie had his own stable of stock answers -- elaborate answers, maybe, but still fairly etched in stone -- and nothing was going to change that. There aren't many new revelations here. In fact, I considered scrapping this interview altogether, because there is -- for die-hard Band fans, at least -- a lot of rehash. But Ronnie has such a compelling way of telling a story -- his manner is almost as intriguing as the stories themselves -- I've let it stand as is. As I said in my original interview with Ronnie, "he can spin a story with the skill of Aesop" -- that's still true. To his credit, Ronnie's facts and opinions haven't changed -- it was great to talk to him and to hear that Arkansas drawl once again. This is Ronnie Hawkins today and here is the Q&A, verbatim.
Ronnie Hawkins, 2006

CC: I think most people know the story about how you recruited the guys, so we don't have to go over all that, but how do you feel about The Band generally, as people and as a group?

RH: Well, when that group came together, they were all young and strong and talented, so what I did was that -- we worked mostly seven days a week, but for sure six, and we practiced five days a week -- it was my rule back then, you know? And timing was good for us, so... I originally came to Canada with all Arkansas boys and then slowly, because of immigration and things, I would find musicians in Canada. And Robbie Robertson came in early on kind of as a roadie-type person, just runnin' errands and listenin' to music and practicin'. He was already into music, he already had little bands, and he was a street-smart, hip kid. So we brought him in first -- Levon did, when the Arkansas boys decided to go back. He started rehearsin,' and he got to play with Roy Buchanan -- you know who that is -- and he got to play with Fred Carter. And Roy and Fred, in my opinion, were two of the greatest guitar players of all time. They went on after leaving me to prove that.

CC: So Robbie was the first to be recruited after the original Arkansas guys, which included Levon?

RH: Yes, as they would leave and go back, Robbie was one of the first to be recruited. I knew the Arkansas boys weren't gonna want to stay in Canada. You know, they had young girlfriends and wives and stuff. So I brought him [Robbie] in and we started rehearsin' him on bass. From bass he went to rhythm guitar, and he played behind Roy Buchanan and Fred Carter. Robbie could learn things in leaps and bounds. He worked hard, he practiced all the time, and he got super good.

CC: What happened then?

RH: Well, Garth Hudson, I hired from London [Ontario] to come in as a teacher, because we'd just lost one of the greatest piano players in rock and roll I've ever had, and that was Stan Szelest. Richard Manuel was around, too, and I'd been helping Richard and that little band from Stratford get goin' -- I even booked 'em down in Arkansas in a few places that I knew. And then when Stan left, you know -- it's always the woman [laughs] -- he decided to get married and had to go back to school and all that stuff like they do for a little while, you know? So I brought Richard in and, of course, Richard wasn't near as strong as Stan was on piano, but he had that throat.

CC: Oh yes. The voice.

RH: Yeah. He had that throat that I liked. I wish I coulda sung like Richard. And so that's why I hired Garth -- to teach Richard everything he could about how to play the piano properly. He put in two hours a day, five days a week. Then Richard practiced with us -- we practiced two hours, so that's four hours. And then we played two and a half hours a night, so that's a lot of music [laughs]. In a year's time, Richard was playin' real good and tearin' 'em up everywhere singin'. He tore 'em up in Arkansas, Oklahoma, in the South where I took him.

Then there was Ricky. Ricky was from, you know, that Simcoe area, and we played a place down there called Port Dover. And -- Ricky told me this story -- he went to the promoter there, Mr. Pop Ivey, and said he'd play for nothin' if he could open for us. And he did that for a couple of Sundays. And the reason he did that was that he'd heard that we were gettin' ready to add a new bass player at the end of the summer, because my bass player at that time, Rebel Payne, was also gettin' married and goin' into some kinda special service.

CC: So what year was that, Ronnie?

RH: I guess that'd be about '60, '61. See now Levon, he can remember things. You'd have to ask him all this -- I just barely can remember bein' there, and he can remember the names of the people. [At this point, Ronnie interrupts the interview.] Just a second, dear -- somebody's at the door [breaks for a second then comes back]. Sorry, baby. Have I missed anybody in The Band, dear?

CC: No, I think that's everybody [laughs].

RH: That was the crew that became The Band. In Canada, you know, when they were with me, I had seven people in the band. I had a saxophone player and a New York singer that I really liked.

1961 Prom, Springdale High School, Springdale, Arkansas. Shirley Overton, pictured with The Hawks. Left to Right: Rebel Paine, Ronnie Hawkins, Shirley, Robbie Robertson, Stan Szelest and Levon Helm.

CC: Who was the singer?

RH: Bruce Bruno. And when they went on their own, they just took the five for some reason. I never did ask them why, it was their business.

CC: So how did Bruce Bruno come into the picture?

RH: Bruce Bruno, we met him playing for Morris Levy [of Roulette Records]. We were playing at the Roundtable in New York. We brought "The Twist" to Canada, because we'd heard it in New York. We heard Bruce Bruno in a band and he could really sing, he could sing big time... but we were talkin' about Ricky, right?

CC: Yes.

RH: Well Ricky, he was from this Port Dover town, and I liked him. He was a good-lookin' young kid, moved around, you know, and he played guitar, of course, at that time. But he wanted a job playin' bass, so we brought him in to a place I was playin' all summer, and he practiced all summer long on bass along with everybody helpin' him, you know, a couple hours a day here, a couple hours a day there. I even had him practicin' in front of a mirror, so he could see what he looked like, so he could get a few little steps and look happy on stage.

CC: Yeah [laughs]. So that was the beginning of the Happy Dance, huh? [I am fairly sure that Ronnie had no idea I was alluding to the Danko Shuffle.]

RH: Yeah. And that's how it started. And because we were playin' so much -- I mean all the time -- everybody got good, everybody got tight, and the timing was good for us too, because we'd already been settin' the pace for rock and roll bands in Canada, because we arrived at the right time before there were any other bands makin' it in rock and roll. So anyway, the band got really good, and people from everywhere came to see 'em, and everybody was always tryin' to hire 'em, all the time, because they were a terrific unit.

CC: Yeah, very tight. Even a non-musician could hear that they were tight.

RH: Yeah, very tight. And young, and looked good, and mixed good, and personalities and all that good shit that goes with it. [laughs] So they were a winning group from day one. I knew it was just a matter of time, and that they would really do good.

CC: How did you find out that they were leaving? How did they announce it -- what was the story behind that?

RH: Well, they just came to the point where they didn't wanna go by my rules anymore. And also, they had had so many offers to play in lots of spots with big-time people that were way bigger than me. I mean, I'm a bar act, right? But anyway, I wanted to stay where I was. I had a steady job -- I got a paycheck 52 weeks out of the year. And that's what a musician needs [laughs] you know, and it's hard to find. But I was very lucky. So anyway, The Band went on and all of a sudden I heard, boy, they're startin' to do good things, and they're ready to go out with Bob Dylan, who I'd heard Gordon Lightfoot and Ian and Sylvia talk about, but I didn't know too much about him.

CC: Did you see them with Dylan?

RH: They came to town and The Band was playin' a club right down the street from Le Coq d'Or, where I played, and Bob Dylan had come in to rehearse, so I got to meet Bob Dylan. Robbie and them came up, Levon got me and took me down and introduced me to Bobby, and then, later on, Levon and them turned me onto a couple of his songs, and I recorded those two songs, way back there in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with Jerry Waxler and Tom Dowd doin' the session.

CC: Which songs?

RH: "One More Night" and "One Too Many Mornings."

CC: That's a great one. Johnny Cash did that with Dylan, too.

RH: I didn't know he did that.

CC: So what year was that?

RH: I guess it was in the '60s. You'll have to ask Levon [laughs] if you wanna know exact dates and names and shit. I can't remember nothin,' baby!

CC: Oh, don't worry about it. I'm sure somebody somewhere knows. But can we go back to 'the rules?' I always liked hearing about 'the rules!' They couldn't bring girlfriends in, and getting fined and stuff like that, right?

RH: You couldn't bring your steady girlfriends in, because the club was full all the time. And each table you gotta make so much money on. Those Greek waiters would just start raisin' hell if their girlfriends would come in and take up the best tables and not drink. You can't do that in a bar! No manager is gonna let that happen -- if he's takin' care of business. So I tried it two or three times. I said 'Boys, them's the rules. You gotta do it.' And there was no messin' up. We practiced five days a week, and we partied, if we weren't workin' on Sundays, then we partied on Saturday nights. And that was it, you know? And the rest of it was work. I said, 'If you wanna get ahead, you gotta sacrifice and get as good as you can, so you can move up.'

CC: You're right about that.

RH: Well, if you're playin' hockey or football or anything else, if you got a team, you gotta work hard to get tight as a unit. It takes a long time, and you gotta play a lot together. But we were lucky enough to play all the time. Within a year, Richard Manuel became an adequate piano player and became good enough to just walk out there and play piano and voice. I always liked his voice.

CC: Oh yeah. Unfortunately I never got to know Richard, but he had a beautiful voice. Soulful.

RH: Yeah, soulful -- sounds right to me!

CC: And pain -- he had pain in his voice, like Rick had.

RH: That's right. That's what he had -- he had pain in his voice, a hidden pain.

CC: Ronnie, what were your feelings when they went off on their own? I'm sure you were happy for them, but did you feel hurt?

RH: Well, you know, when things like that happen, there's always a little bitterness for a little while about different things, but I knew -- I mean, a lot of people had been offerin' the boys jobs. And I already knew that if they decided to go with someone, or somewhere else, I wouldn't go with the unit. I was gonna stay on Yonge Street, just as long as I could. That was the job. So when they came up with the ultimatum or whatever it is, change the rules or whatever the deal was, I chose to let them go ahead and try it on their own and see what happens. Then if nothin' happens on my end and nothin' happens on their end, maybe we can get back together someday.

CC: That's fair, I think.

RH: That's all I could really do, you know? I knew that they had intended to try somethin' 'cause they didn't like the rules. They had lots of girls, lots of excitement happenin.' And they were still young and strong, and you know what women and partyin' does when you're young and strong [laughs heartily]...

CC: Yeah, it makes you old and weak, right? [laughs]

RH: It makes ya old and weak, yes it does! [laughs]

Rick Danko and The Hawk, 1988. Photo by B. Thomson.
Hawkins provided this photo for Carol Caffin's first interview with the Hawk in the late '80s.

CC: I don't think they'll ever be 'old' -- Rick was never old.

RH: Yeah, I know. I liked ol' Ricky. He worked. He played more than the rest of 'em. The sad thing about gettin' popular and makin' a little money is they stopped workin' and stopped practicin' and started partyin' and chasin' women and drugs and everything there is to do that makes a young man think he's doin' somethin.' But see, they stopped playin' as a unit and individually, almost, except for Rick. Ricky finally got where he'd go out all the time and play. He'd come to Canada and play, too. The rest of 'em wouldn't hardly play -- not as long as they still had a little money. When they all went broke and all that stuff happened, then they had to go to work. And then they tried to make it without Robbie, of course, and it was a little rough, but they had some success.

CC: I think there are different sides of that, you know, with and without Robbie. They had a lot of success and I think they were incredible with Robbie -- but they were incredible without Robbie, too. It was just different.

RH: Yeah, it was just different. But they could still play. But they never got tight. Except at the end of that run they had in... uh, they stayed tight because they had to play seven days a week. Harold Kudlets booked 'em in New Jersey or somewhere, I forget. But it was one of them jobs where I knew they would stay tight, like when we played in Wildwood, New Jersey. But after The Band left there, and they started havin' that success, and everybody had a little money, they didn't come to rehearsals. They wouldn't hardly come for recording sessions after a while.
Terry Danko and The Hawk.
Photo by Jennifer Leigh.

CC: I remember a show they did around '94 -- it's funny now, but I guess it wasn't funny then -- where they did no soundcheck, no rehearsal, no nothing. The opening act was onstage, and you could literally hear the bus outside braking and the exhaust or whatever that 'pssshhhh' noise is, and then two minutes later, they were out on stage... you gotta love 'em.

RH: [Laughs] Well, you see what they done half-wounded -- think about what they coulda done if they was on point! Everybody sharp, and everybody tight, and everybody straight, and everybody workin' right and workin' as a team.

CC: Okay Ronnie. Here's something that, of course, you don't have to answer if you don't want to, but this interview is, as you know, for The Band site, and fans want to know: this thing with Robbie and Levon -- I don't get involved in it, I have nothing to say about it because I just don't know. I love Levon and I honestly don't know Robbie, but I am trying to be objective and I am going to ask you: do you think Robbie quote/unquote 'screwed them' [the other Band members]?

RH: Well, I don't think anybody... I just think everybody got outta control. I think everybody got outta control and stopped thinkin' right and everything else, you know? They were blowing too much money. They were spendin' too much money on credit cards, so something had to give. I mean wasting. They would invite 30 people out for sushi in LA and pick up the tab. I mean, you can't do that -- not unless you got a hit record goin'! [laughs] But anyway, they wasted too much money and had too much fun. I mean, Ricky lived to be what, 56? If I'd have thought I'd live to be 56, I mighta gone with him! [laughs] Well, they left behind some unbelievable music. But, you know, Stan Szelest is gone, Ricky's gone, Richard's gone -- and none of 'em had to be gone! None of 'em had to be gone. Nobody helped one another no more. Everybody was so busy rootin' for themselves, that they didn't see Richard was in trouble, they didn't see that Ricky needed help -- all that shit! Nobody cared!

And then Robbie and Levon had the big blowup, you know. 'Cause see Levon was the boss in my band. He was the music director, he was everything. He was the one that -- I had to talk him into lettin' Robbie in! [laughs] He ran the music. So he was the boss, 100 percent, when they left me, then somehow or another, it got turned around in there somewhere. Robbie and Levon were like Siamese twins. I mean, I used to call 'em Simon and Garfuckle. [laughs] I don't know what happened along the way. Albert Grossman got in there, and then Robbie started doin' business with Albert Grossman. I don't know if it's because the other boys couldn't get up to take care of any business -- I heard all kinds of rumors. You know, nobody'd show up, everybody was fucked up, they didn't know if Richard's gonna make it and all that shit, so I said 'Boy, that's some stupid shit and it's costin' them nothin' but time and money.'

CC: Very sad, and I'm glad that was before my time. They're just such good guys, and such incredible musicians. People are always going to speculate, but I'm hoping that you can help put some of the speculation to rest.

RH: Well, in my opinion, Levon -- he thinks he got screwed; Robbie knows he didn't, and that kinda stuff, you know? So who knows what happened? I don't know what Robbie was doin' -- I was closer to Levon. But I know that Levon was spendin' too much money.

CC: What about the songwriting stuff?

RH: Well, I'll tell you my opinion on that, too. I was told Robbie wrote all the songs, you know? But, if you're a unit, the unit should get some of it, because they helped with the arrangements and stuff. I don't know how that goes. But everybody got percentages and everything. But I don't think Bob Dylan would give a band his songs. I don't think anybody I know would wanna give their songs to everybody. Robbie was writin' songs in my band. I recorded a couple of Robbie's songs when he was about 16 years old. I had a little extra time in a studio in New York. It was... let's see... 'Hey Boba Lu' and 'Someone Like You.' Two silly little songs, you know, but shit, I thought they were good and I said 'let's give 'em a shot' because we were playin' for young people.

CC: So do you think Robbie wrote 'The Weight' one hundred percent?

RH: Well I do, because I don't know of anybody else in The Band that was writin' -- not when they was with me. Robbie was the only one that was writin' songs.

CC: What about 'Dixie'?

RH: See I don't know about any of that stuff, dear, 'cause it has Robbie Robertson's name on it.

CC: But Levon influenced him...

RH: Well, I know Levon influenced him. [laughs] Levon was the one who ran everything in The Band. But when we came to Canada, Levon didn't really know anything either. But we had a guitar player by the name of Jimmy Ray Paulman who, as I look back on it, was one of the greatest guitar players for that style of music, the rockabilly thing, you know? But Levon learned, and I personally think that Levon coulda done anything if he would've applied his mind to it, but Levon always liked partyin', and fun, and chasin' girls -- which ain't a bad thing! [laughs] But I didn't have that much energy. [laughs] Levon always loved the girls, boy! And so then he learned music. And then every time I'd bring in new musicians, Levon would work 'em, you know, show 'em the rhythms, show 'em this and that. Because Levon played a little bass, and he played a little guitar. See, Levon was a guitar player when he came with me. He never owned a set of drums in his life. But he was good enough to show some young fucker how he wants the rhythm goin' and chord changes and all that stuff. So that's what he did. He was the leader. In the meantime he was -- what did we call it? -- he was my 'arranger.' [laughs] I guess you'd call it that. I don't know if you know it or not, but I fired David Foster. That's the big story he tells everybody. He was fired by The Hawk.

CC: I don't think I knew that -- but I really don't remember.

RH: He says it was because he tried to put two chords in 'Bo Diddley.' So he says 'The Hawk fired me.' [laughs] So I told him, 'If you fucked with Mozart's compositions, he might've fired ya too!' [laughs] But David Foster's been big time now for about 20 years. He's doin' real good -- except in wives. He's supportin' about five wives. He better keep them hits comin'!

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