Long on Nerve: An Interview with Ronnie Hawkins
by Robert CochranFrom the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. LXV, Summer 2006.
Reproduced with permission of the author and the copyright owners.
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
THE INTERVIEW EXCERPTED HERE took place in October 2002 under bizarre circumstances. The interviewee, cancer in his pancreas, was assumed near death by himself, by his doctors, and by the archivists in Fayetteville who dispatched the interviewer to his digs in Canada. Ronnie Hawkins had been a prominent and flamboyant figure for a very long time. In on rock and roll's turbulent rockabilly beginnings in the 1950s and, as the '60s dawned, first boss of the combo that would become famous as The Band, he was still living large in the century's final decade, gracing Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugeral with his august and raunchy presence. It was important, before the final bell, to record his impressions.
Things turned out differently, however -- humbling, once again and not for the last time, all who claim to know the shape of tomorrow. It's 2006 now, May 7 as this is written, more than three years have passed, and just yesterday, cancer mysteriously, miraculously gone, the man was holding forth at a Hawkins family reunion on the old family homeplace outside St. Paul in Madison County, Arkansas. Enthroned on a wooden bench under a hillside pavillion next to his cousin and fellow musician Dale Hawkins, the lovely Ozark Mountains looming preternaturally green in the light rain, he spun out once again his fabulous, ribald tale, cracking up the men an charming the women.
And it was up there, beneath the water's gentle patter, that the essential element in rock and roll fame suddenly flashed out again. He's over seventy now, but Hawkins still has a firm hold on what he knew before he was twenty -- that one thing above all is expected of the leader of a rock and roll band; the incarnation of Dionysos, master of revels. Country songwriter Harlan Howard is credited with that genre's most succinct characterization -- country music is three chords and the truth. Then Bono added the red guitar in U2's version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower": "All I've got is a red guitar, three chords, and the truth."
But for Hawkins, as for Sonny Burgess, Billy Lee Riley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the other rockabilly wild men, the red guitar (or piano) was often mostly a prop, and truth was nowhere to be seen, a notion of little interest. Hawkins called it "that monkey act," did backflips on stage, and moonwalked decades before Michael Jackson. Women charged the stage, so many that when he first hired a teenage Robbie Robertson, Hawkins told him he couldn't pay much but promised he would get more girls than Frank Sinatra. As the decades passed, the outrages shifted their focus, even as the underlying persona remained uchanged. Where he once violated behavioral conventions, running whiskey and carousing with underage daughters of community pillars ("they said it was an orgy but I called it eight or ten people in love"), he turned in later years to the flaunting of conversational standards. In 2005, at an elegant party celebrating his honorary doctorate at Laurentian University in Ontario, Hawkins announced his arrival in stentorian voice: "The Doctor is in. All ladies line up on the left for physicals." To this day, he bills himself in e-mails as "The Housewives' Companion" and "The Working Girls' Favorite." As an afterthought down the epithet list, he adds "Advisor to Presidents" and puts a "Dr." in front of the sign-off, thanks to the honorary degree.
And there on the hillside he's still at it, youthful Dionysos altered by the years to aged satyr Silenus, but still laughing, still making the ladies blush, ever and always Mr. Dynamo, Rompin' Ronnie, the face of rock and roll, the life of the party Nero would be ashamed to attend.
This excerpt centers on Hawkins' beginnings -- from his birth in rural Madison County and the move in childhood to "the big metropolis" of Fayetteville, where he went to school and formed his first band, to the later travels in pursuit of musical goals, first to Memphis and Helena and then, in 1958, to the "promised land" of Canada, where his career really took off. It's a great tale, with Arkansas people and places at its center. Read on.
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Bob Cochran: You were born in Huntsville, Arkansas, in 1935. What are your earliest memories?
Ronnie Hawkins: I can remember back to when I was three, four or five years old, but I can't remember what I did yesterday. It's those little things that brand into your brain when you're little. I remember running around in St. Paul. We moved back and forth a little bit. My dad would go away to the wheat harvest, and my mom and everyone would move back to St. Paul, close to the families. I can remember my dad working for seventy-five cents a day, I guess for the WPA [Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency]. Maybe it went to a dollar. I went to the fourth grade in Huntsville, then we moved to the big metropolis of Fayetteville. I remember thinking that I couldn't believe how many telephone poles had so many lines on them. That's what I noticed as we were getting into the city. At that time, the population was 17,500 on the sign at the city limits. I went to school at Leverett until the eighth grade, then to Washington, and then to Fayetteville High. Washington was known as the uptown school. That's where the elite went. Leverett was kind of middle class, and Jefferson had the "mayhem brothers." Boy, there were tough.
BC: Jefferson is still there. Was Leverett where it is now, right at the top of Garland hill?
RH: Yes, I remember running the red light [there]. I was showing off. I had the daughter of one of the biggest lawyers in Arkansas with me, underage of course. We ran that red light. She did.
BC: I think I've heard that story. That's where you switch places with her, so you'd take the hit.
RH: Yes, I'd take the hit. Pearl Watts was the sheriff. He smoked those old rolled Bull Durham tobaccos. He always had one a fraction of an inch long in the corner of his mouth, going right up into his eye while he was interrogating you. [Laughter] Judge Packet, he was something, I remember those things.
BC: You've got a fabulous memory for those names.
RH: Like I said, I can remember certain things, but I can't remember anything that I need to know. Just those little incidents that are burned into my mind. I can see it just like it was yesterday, old Pearl Watts with those white clothes, interrogating me for running that red light. They were sitting right behind Leverett school. When we were going over that hill, we were in a hurry to get out to the university farm. That's where everybody parked. [Laughs]
BC: That's all built up now, but you've still got the farm out there.
RH: My uncle, Lefty Cornett, worked at the university farms. He's my mom's brother. I guess he worked for twenty years at their experimental farm. We used to slip out there and get gas. We'd put gas in those five-gallon cans. I was driving a custom 1929 [Ford] Model A coupe. I got tired of having chapped lips all the time, you know.
BC: From siphoning that gasoline?
RH: Those gas fumes. [Laughs] Anyone who worked up there used a little gas, and I used it.
BC: That's the gas that doesn't get taxed, right?
RH: It doesn't get taxed.
BC: [Laughs] It's for agricultural purposes.
RH: I think you could get it for twenty cents for regular. I could remember when it was fourteen cents for ethyl. I worked at a station there. I can remember the old pumps, with the glass bowls. They had those forever in those little towns.
BC: Any special memories prior to Fayetteville that are vivid to you, especially any memories having to do with music? I know you had an uncle who was a well-known musician, Delmer [Hawkins].
RH: Everyone in the Hawkins family, every one of my uncles, my dad -- they all played a little. Dad knew a bunch of songs on the guitar. Years later, maybe just ten years ago, my sister was trying to do research on everything she could find out about the Hawkins. She ran across one distant relative's trunk, and it has the original list of the Hawkins Brothers Band. They'd go out and play on weekends for square dances and such, my Uncle Eddie, Uncle Henry, and my dad. Uncle Delmer, then, must have been too young. He became one of the best musicians. He was gifted. I found out just how good he was years later. He just sat in with the Band and did things that it takes you a long time to learn how to do. He was super good. That's Dale Hawkins' father. Dale [rock and roll musician best know for "Suzy Q"] lives in [North] Little Rock.
BC: He came back up from Louisiana.
RH: He moved down to Louisiana when [his parents] divorced. They moved from Arkansas to Louisiana. I used to meet Dale at my Grandma Hawkins' place. We'd meet there in the summertime. We were dreaming of playing music. [Laughs].
BC: That began pretty early for you?
RH: I was five years old, and I knew that's what I wanted to do. Uncle Delmer had a brand new Cadillac roadster, women, and clothes that were made just for him. [Laughs]
BC: That's pretty unusual.
RH: That's big time. I knew that's what i wanted to do, show off. When I look back, all my cousins and all those people were more advanced in music than me. I Just didn't grasp it as quickly or get into it as much. I learned songs by singing them and by listening to the stories. That old Victrola, right there, it's still the original records that my Grandma and Grandpa Cornett had from St. Paul. I learned all kinds of songs off that old wind-up Victrola right there.
BC: When I came to work at the University of Arkansas, there was a big folk song collection there. It was collected by my predecessor, Mary Perler. There are three songs by you in there. Do you remember recording those?
RH: No, I don't. There are things I can't remember. We recorded all the time. They had those little, dinky tape recorders then. We used to go up and try to tape things upstairs in the student union. There used to be a little hallway up there where they held dances, concerts, recitals, and things. It was right above the student union, the second floor, at that big building there at the University of Arkansas.
BC: That would be memorial Hall. They've built a new student union. I can't name the songs right off the top of my head, but one of them was "Please, Mr. Conductor," that old Jimmie Rodgers song.
RH: It's over there right now, that same song. Oh! That was the saddest song! there was one called "Put My Little Shoes Away."
BC: Yes, a dying child ballad.
RH: So sad, you wouldn't even want to listen to it.
BC: Where did you hear those songs? You'd hear them on the records? Was that the kind of music that your grandma would buy?
RH: That's what they had. They had that old RCA Victrola, and they came in those packages of all the songs. Jimmie Rodgers was the big one for the country people. We used to listen to all that stuff.
BC: Buddy Hayes [of Fayetteville, a jazz trumpeter] worked in a barber shop where your dad was, right?
RH: Yes. The U. of A. Barber Shop.
BC: Right there on Dickson Street.
RH: Yes. Dad worked there. Buddy taught me how to pop that rag.
BC: Shine shoes?
RH: He could do all that. He played trumpet. He did kind of a Louis Armstrong take-off.
BC: He was your introduction to black music?
RH: Yes. The crackers in the barber shop. I'd go back there and hear that stuff. I'd hear them play the blues. Boy! It just felt good. It was like country, but different.
BC: So, then you get a car, and the place you go is Memphis [in 1951].
RH: First place I went.
BC: That's a long drive in those days. It's six hours now.
RH: I want to tell you something. 90 percent of the roads were gravel. Once you got out of town, they became gravel. Even between Springdale and Fayetteville was all gravel. Once you got outside, it was all gravel to St. Paul, then it was gravel to Little Rock on most of those roads. Then, that road from Little Rock to Memphis was all gravel. They didn't have any of those interstates and all that stuff. There was that one road, going over Mount Gaylor [between Fayetteville and Alma], and the roads were banked wrong. It was dangerous!
BC: Yes, it is stil dangerous.
RH: It was always foggy on that mountain. I made the trip to Memphis. That's when I was starting to try and play. I was trying to learn those blues songs, and trying to get those blues records on Beale Street. Buddy Hayes and that bunch were the ones who let me sit around and listen. They let me try things and do things. Most people don't want kids around, but they did it. That's why old Jo Jo Thompson...
BC: A piano player?
RH: He was one of the young ones, he and his brother Half-Pint. They were Pint and Half-Pint. Those were their nicknames. His brother was a drummer and a dancer, and he had as much talent as Sammy Davis, Jr. But coming up in that lifestyle was just booze and messing around. His brother finally killed himself drinking, at a young age. I was as broke as the Ten Commandments. I got down there, and Jo Jo had had a stroke or something and was just getting his left hand back to where he could play. He had to sell everything he had. I borrowed the money off Don Tyson to buy him the slickest Cadillac you've ever seen in your life. It was about ten years old, but it was like brand new. I'd bought three or four Cadillacs brand new from Herb [laughs] Hatfield. I put a downstroke on them, and I'd hide them in the daytime to keep them from reposessing them. [Laughter]
There was a place in West Memphis, I can't remember the name of the spot, but they served fatback with the rind on it, really crisp, to dip down in that sausage gravy like it was a dipper. [Laughs] All that fat! It was sowbelly, but what a taste. That's where I ate when I was in Memphis in those summers of 1951 and 1952, trying to learn some blues. They'd bring that hot sausage in that gravy, and about four pieces about one quarter of an inch thick, with the rind on it. Fried crisp and done stiff. You could take that just like a spoon and dip in that sausage gravy. My mouth is watering right now. That's why I had to get a quadruple bypass.
BC: Like they say, it's like taking a bullet, but you die happy.
RH: The food in Memphis, Little Rock and Arkansas, It's always hooked everyone up here. That means the food's got something to it down there. Not a soul who wouldn't fall in love with that food. In fact, they've never tasted anything better.
[Back in Fayetteville in 1954 and 1955] we started working and playing wherever they would let us. I remember it was good if we could just make five dollars a night, per man. That's all we wanted. It was hard to get sometimes. Every now and then, we'd get a fraternity or a sorority, and that was good money.
BC: Just last year at a thing called the Northwest Arkansas Music Awards, they gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to your early band. They had [bassist] Claude Chambers down there.
RH: Oh, Claude. What a guy he was!
BC: Bob Keen?
RH: Bobby Keen [a guitarist], He was a kid who could have been something. Harold Pinkerton [another guitarist]?
BC: Yes. He was there, and Herman Tuck [a drummer]. Herman had a tuxedo. He had this ruffled shirt on and he looked fine.
RH: Everyone wanted Herman Tuck to play in their band. He played in country bands, but his love was swing. He really liked the old swing days, better than anything. Jerry Lee Lewis wanted to hire him. He played with Jerry a couple or three times. Irene [Tuck, his wife] didn't want him going on the road with us. [Laughs]
BC: Irene was a smart lady.
RH: All the boys. We had a fun gig. Claude Chambers was the only legitimate musician, because he could read, write and arrange. He could use a bow and everything. I guess he studied that in college. Before I owned it, we played at the Rockwood [club in Fayetteville] one time. It was a private party, and a bunch of people came in from Fort Smith, Arkansas, couples and good-looking ladies. They got drunk, and one girl, sure as hell, jumped right up on the table in front of Claude, who was playing bass. She started taking her clothes off. You've never seen a bass player look around like that! [Laughs] I was watching Claude instead of watching her taking her clothes off, that's how funny it was. When she dropped her brassiere, he looked around to see if anyone else was watching. [Laughs] But, boy, old Arkansas. We had some fun. There was the Rockwood. We had the Tee Table [in Fayetteville] before that. Dayton [Stratton] ran it. It was out on the highway, and I was the silent partner.
BC: Because you were too young?
RH: Too young. But I'd make that money taking whiskey and stuff from Missouri to Oklahoma. One hundred dollars a day. That's a lot of money.
BC: It's a lot of money by contrast. When I've heard the stories that you've told about it, the contrast is with what your dad was making doing hard, legitimate work. He'd work really hard all day, and make five dollars.
RH: I remember it was five, or it was a dollar under the WPA. Can you remember the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps, another New Deal agency]?
BC: Oh yes. My daddy worked for the CCC.
RH: An average week for daddy in the barber shop was sevent-five or eighty dollars a week, working his ass off. I could actually make three hundred dollars if I made three trips. I did, a time or two. That Model A was loaded down. They knew exactly how to put those cases in there. I never got stopped once. I never got checked. They had a line out there checking the Cadillacs and all but not that old car of mine, that Model A. Then I got that 1939 Ford and geared it out how they run moonshine, where you have the trunk out, lay everything back, and cover everything up. I was playing moonshine runner. [Laughs] All I was doing was driving down there. What's that little town in Missouri, close to Rogers?
RH: That's not it. They had gas stations and cigarettes and everything.
RH: Gateway, that's it.
BC: Just north of Garfield.
RH: I hardly remember the area. We'd drive up there, load it up, and take it in to that one guy. You could make one hundred dollars. The bootleggers were giving fortunes away to the churches and all to keep whiskey out of Oklahoma.
BC: Sure. Keep the price up.
RH: They didn't want that coming in. They had that old 3.2 [beer] or whatever it was. You couldn't get beer in Oklahoma at one time. It was a dry state. But it had some good clubs. Tahlequah, Oklahoma? I never finished a dance. They'd start at 11:00 o'clock. That's why we'd always get paid in advance.
BC: It would end in chaos?
RH: Yes. That's what it was. That's when we'd start double booking into those clubs that hadn't paid us. They had brown bag clubs, or whatever the fuck they called them. It certainly changed.
BC: There were places you didn't want to go into. When I first moved down here, there was a place actually called the Crossfire Lounge in Locust Grove.
RH: Oh, my God. The ones that were rough were the ones in the south. We didn't have that many in Fayetteville. I mean, they have them everywhere, but in the south? They have those honky tonks.
BC: Since I work at the University of Arkansas and you went there, talk just a little about the university when you were around.
RH: When I was at the university, they wouldn't hire us because they hired the big bands like Gene Kruppa. The faculty had something to do with the school back then. I don't think they do anymore, but that was how it was in those days. Those were the days when it was unheard of -- and you couldn't have done it -- to move into apartments where boys and girls mixed. They had curfews back then. It was different.
BC: This was the dorms?
RH: Yes. This was the dorms. I remember Mr. Bunn Bell. He was the husband of the principal of Fayetteville High School. He was a little guy, and he had something to do with the university. After all the years, they were hiring me to do something. They were nervous, and saying, "Now you can't do this, and you can't do that." I used to put on that monkey act, and they were worried. Some of those high schools didn't want us to come back because we were too suggestive. [Laughs]
BC: That's a story you hear all the time. Billy Riley [the rockabilly musician from Pocahontas] tells that story too. He played over in northeast Arkansas at Arkansas State. They wouldn't hire him back.
RH: That's the only time I can remember that the university hired us. I worked all the time for fraternities and sororities.
BC: Those were separate.
RH: Yes. They hired whoever they wanted. I remember that they always had that toga party at Kappa Sigs or whatever it was. That one right there across Dickson Street.
BC: [After attending the University of Arkansas], you were in the army [in 1955-1956] when you joined up with this black band, right?
RH: That was in Oklahoma. Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was still in the army there, but I'd gotten into special services. Some of those people in special services were huge names, but I was doing that monkey act, that rock and roll. I picked out some musicians who were in the army. They got into special services to entertain the noncoms and at the officer's clubs. We went into town, into Lawton, Oklahoma, to see this band that was playing at this AmVets club. It's a scam, you know. You can drink liquor, but only if you buy a card for a dollar to join them. It was a lady who owned it. Her brothers had the reputation of being Dixie mafia boys. Those clubs supposedly didn't have booze in Oklahoma in those days, but all of them did. That's where I met A.C. Reed. Later on, he went up to Chicago and made many blues records on sax. He was the leader of the band. I wanted to join his band and learn all that I could. I kind of became the houseboy for the owner. That's how I kept the job for the whole time, until I got out of the army. Then I went back to Arkansas after that, because we got into a lot of trouble as a mixed band. There were problems, even though they hired us. This band could have been it! It was a good one. There were about four black guys, but black wasn't beautiful in the 1950s. That's when I got the notice to go down and be a front man at $100 dollars a week.
BC: Down in Memphis?
RH: Yes, in Memphis. I took my car, it was a 1926 [Model] T Roadster, with a V-8 engine in it out of an old 1939 Ford. By the time I got there [in1957], they were fighting over who was going to be the leader [of the band], because the leader got double back in those days. I had told everyone in the state of Arkansas, "Sun Records called me and they want me to front the band." I was on an ego trip, you know. I was young. I couldn't go home. I couldn't go back and face all those guys. [Laughs] No telling what they'd say! I'd just told them that I was going down there.
BC: To be a star?
RH: I think they turned down Elvis, but they want me! [Laughter] I never did get to get on Sun, and I wanted to get on Sun. Every time I was down there, they were too busy and when they had time for me, I wasn't there.
BC: Sun was big for two or three years.
RH: Those country boys down there wanted on Sun. That's when I took old Jimmy Ray [Paulman, a guitarist] from Arkansas. He played on sessions at Sun. He had a cousin who played piano, Will Pop Jones. Will Pop Jones knew a drummer from Marianna, Arkansas, who sat in. He didn't have drums, but he had that good rhythm. We started practicing in the basement of that old radio station [KFFA in Helena]. Downstairs, we borrowed the equipment from the King Biscuit Flour Hour boys, the drums and everything. We'd play those little jobs that you'd pick up, but we didn't make any money. We'd make just enough to keep you in beer and room.
BC: There was a man down there [in Helena] who sort of helped you guys out. He ran a motel.
RH: Charlie Halbert.
BC: Yes. Charlie Halbert. He ran the Rainbow Inn.
RH: Old Charlie was one of those great big ex-football players. He was a Texas boy, loved music, and played a little guitar. He also sponsored different young athletes to go to the University of Arkansas, the football players.
BC: He was a booster.
RH: Yes. He was a booster, an Arkansas booster. He was a hell of a guy. He gave me a little job cleaning up the motel, doing things, and running around. I ended up mostly running with him, keeping him laughing, trying to keep him going. He was doing real well then, because there were no bridges across the Mississippi River yet. He owned all the ferries that took cars and everything across the Mississippi before they put that bridge in.
BC: That was lucrative.
RH: Oh, yes. You couldn't go wrong!
BC: That's where [rockabilly and, later, country music performer] Conway [Twitty] was, growing up. Didn't his dad work on those ferries?
RH: Yes, he did. He was a ferryboat captain. He worked for Charlie Halbert. Charlie Halbert put money into Harold [Lloyd Jenkins (Conway Twitty's real name)]. He helped old Carl Perkins. Carl Perkins played there, and no one showed up. He didn't have enough money to get back, and Charlie Halbert gave him the money. He gave Elvis and them money when they got over there and didn't draw anyone either.
BC: He was the unsung hero in that region, wasn't he?
RH: He was! When he had that ferry service going, he had plenty of money. He helped us a lot. He got a car for us and some equipment. He paid down on it, and we were supposed to be able to pay for it, playing everywhere that we were playing. Do you remember the name Jack Nance [a drummer]?
RH: Jack Nance bought our new drums, and we used his. We traded for his. That way we didn't have any payments. On the first set of drums that Levon [Helm of Marvell, later of the Band] had, all the snares were all worn out and the skins were loose. We didn't have anything plastic. Levon went though sticks. Oh, man! You wouldn't find any sticks that could take that abuse. He kept getting them bigger and bigger as his strength grew. Levon Helm had a drum solo the first time we ever played together. We'd been practicing for three or four weeks, but we didn't practice any drum solos. [Laughs} All of a sudden, I said, "Hit it, Levon! "He got up and started that Stepin Fetchit bit, where he goes around tapping on tables and glasses. [Laughter] Those old, drunk rednecks loved that shit. We outdrew everyone. We put on a monkey act.
BC: That Newport area was a real music center in Arkansas.
RH: Boy, they had some! Those hillbillies could play.
BC: Maybe it had something to do with the laws there. They had clubs that served liquor, and they were surrounded by dry counties. Why would it be in a place not so big, and way off the beaten track? You just don't drive through Newport, even today. You have to go out of your way to go to Newport.
RH: Oh, I know it.
BC: I talked to (rockabilly musician) Sonny Burgess, and he said that Newport was one of the best club scenes in Arkansas.
RH: It was one of the best club scenes I ever played. It was always full. It was always rockin'. I think the owners sold a little whiskey on the side. They sold a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Like everyone who gets into the business, they do other things that will bring in a little income.
BC: Was one of those places called the Rooftop?
RH: The Rooftop. There was another spot I remember.
BC: Sonny Burgess talks a lot about the Rooftop.
RH: Sonny Burgess was the king of that area. Old Jack Nance and Big Joe Lewis (a guitarist and bassist), he was from there.
BC: Where was Jack Nance from? Conway?
RH: Oh, yes. There was a good drummer out of Conway. They called him Porkchop. Tommy Markham. He was a good one. Funny? He was funny. We got up here and we ground up a little circuit in Canada. That was so much easier. You felt better. You knew that you have a better chance of getting paid up here, because everything was under control of the Liquor Control Board. It was good. Down there, we were playing places, and we didn't know who the owner was.
BC: You'd get stiffed on the check?
RH: Not enough people would come in or something. You know better, but you can't argue with these guys. These are hoodlums. Redneck outlaws. We always looked to someone who had the good name, or they had their liquor license under someone else's name. The Silver Moon is name of the club I was trying to think of in Newport. We played that. Everyone tried to copy the Silver Moon because it was packed all the time. They had those good rockabilly acts, and everyone liked them. It would be Riley and one guy I can't think of now who did pretty well. He was a disc jockey. I can't think of him. Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee (Riley) are the ones that I liked. They did the funky stuff. They had a show group, Sonny Burgess did. They had some of the funniest, drunkest musicians in that band! Every one of them was a character.
BC: [Riley and Burgess are] fundamentally different now. Sonny Burgess is the happiest man on the planet. He thinks that he had all the lucky breaks, because he didn't have to pick cotton. He got to play music his whole life. Billy Lee is different-he's still mad he wasn't a bigger star.
RH: I know that. He thought he was Elvis.
BC: He was Elvis and never made it. He got put down because Sam Phillips [of Sun Records] promoted Jerry Lee Lewis instead. Here's two guys whose careers have been remarkably similar. They both had about the same level of success. One guy thinks he just hit the jackpot, and the other guy thinks he missed the ring.
RH: I saw all the Sun session boys here. I went down and saw them at a club. A lot of those old pickers are still alive who played on Sun, off and on. Not the big names, but the ones who had all the good records. Sun had a lot of cats out there, the rockabilly stuff. We learned some of those songs and played them. Carl Perkins was one of our favorites. Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, and Elvis, when he first started. We stopped Elvis' stuff when he started doing the movies. That wasn't rock and roll to us. But he did some good rockabilly on Sun, the double slapping days. I met Elvis one time. He couldn't spell Memphis in 1952. In about 1955, he owned it. I met him right there on Beale Street. The only reason that I would remember meeting him was because of the name Elvis Presley. It sounded pukey.
BC: You tried to talk him out of it?
RH: No. I got that reputation, but it was the guy I was with. He said, "Fucking Elvis Presley? It sounds too pukey." No one ever heard of a name like Elvis. And Presley? You'd heard of Presley, but it didn't fit right. Shit, he was going to have to change his name to Rock.
BC: Something tough?
RH: Something tough, because it just didn't sound right. Next time, he was getting noticed, and I got to see him, just to say hello. The third time, it was, "Elvis has left the building." I didn't even get to go back and see him in Tulsa. Three times.
BC: You just went?
RH: [Laughs] I just went. I said, "Well, there was hope for all of us."
BC: What do you think was the combination that made that music so appealing? All those guys, like Riley, Burgess, you, Sleepy [LaBeef, of Smackover], and Conway Twitty-all from this sort of pretty restricted geographical area.
RH: I guess everyone started liking the blues. That's the only thing that I know. Just about every rockabilly record that was a hit was a copy from old blues in the 1940s. Do you remember Elvis Presley's "That's All Right, Mama?" That's Lloyd Price, 1948. Big Mama Thornton's "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog." Muddy was one of my heroes. I love Hank Williams and Muddy Waters. They are my favorite country singers. That blues is just country in a different style. They're telling stories, not like that highbrow music. They're telling some sad stories. [Singing] "Well, if I don't love you baby, grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man."
BC: You would say that the main new thing was that all these white kids were listening to the blues?
RH: I think so. That's what I did. I did my best to get that stuff down, but I didn't have the throat, so it came out a different way. I always said that I wanted to sound like Bobby "Blue" Bland, but it came out closer to Ernest Tubb. [Laughs] It wasn't supposed to last a year when we took off [for Canada in 1958]. We just went off for adventure. We had to wait for Levon to graduate. "He's not going anywhere. He's got to have something to fall back on. He's got to graduate from Marvell High." He had to have something to fall back on. [Laughter]
BC: But you really found a home in Canada?
RH: For working, Canada was the promised land. The timing was good for us. No one had heard this kind of music. The Memphis stuff was brand new. It was going over with the young people. You had to be twenty-one to get into the bars at that time. There were a lot of people from sixteen to nineteen who really wanted to see us, so we played out on Sundays for those people. We played seven days a week for years. Slowly in Canada, the liquor licenses loosened up, and everyone had liquor licenses, and all the Canadian bands started making a living. They'd book them, finally, so they just spread out. It would be really hard to stay in any one spot like I did, because I had the good timing.
BC: Being the first rock and roll band there?
RH: Being the first, plus we were in an area [in Toronto] that was designed for all the liquor licenses. There weren't any anywhere else then. That meant all the people came downtown. That's where they wanted to keep all the people who wanted to come and drink. Two or three years before we came to Canada, you could fill every bar that had a liquor license with a black and white TV set. That was the 1950s, and that was big time. Entertainment was just coming in. It was mostly western or western swing. They already had the pop stuff that played in the big rooms, the Frank Sinatra-type stuff. But the strip was Yonge Street. We got on it, and it was a twenty-year wonderful run. It was more fun! We were happy. We felt good. We had all kinds of good musicians up here. As the [Arkansas] guys went back homesick, or home to get married-a lot of them went home to get married-I stayed on. How the Band got together was that Levon was the only Arkansas boy left. I saw where everything was heading, and I couldn't keep Jimmy Ray Paulman up there. He had too many problems at home. He wanted to go all the time. He was one of the greatest rockabilly rhythm guitar players that I've ever had. But he had that rural thing in there. So did Willard.
BC: Pop Jones?
RH: Yes, Pop Jones. They were good, and they could have been as good as anyone if we'd just kept going. It got to be too much trouble. We didn't know if they were going to stay for the tour. Jimmy Ray would threaten every night that he wanted to go home. We weren't exactly living big time in those twenty-dollar-a-week rooms. Not twenty dollars a night. [Laughs] Twenty dollars a week. Twenty dollars a night would get you a good one, but those twenty-dollar-a-week ones were pretty rough. They left.
BC: I've got plenty of tape, but what if I came in now, without asking all these questions. What would you like to say?
RH: I'm like old Sonny Burgess. I have been the luckiest booger in the world. I was a little short on talent and money at an early age, and I knew that, but I was long on nerve. [Laughs] And I knew that!