Last Boogie in Sturgeon Falls
Ronnie Hawkins at 41: Still trying to bring it all back home
by Earl McRaeArticle from The Canadian, March 27, 1976. The text and photos are copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute this material.
In Room 10, faintly lit by the neon sign beyond the curtain, a cigar glows intermittently, followed by muffled coughing, the occasional curse. For the rock 'n' roll legend, sleep does not come easy, if at all. Not so much because of the gripping cold and fever and the aching in his bones, but for more ominous reasons - the aching in his soul. A hurt brought on by fear. Fear that at 41, fat, depressed and weary and with more grey than he'd like running through his hair and beard, the legend that grew and flourished since he came to Canada from his native Arkansas 18 years ago is, at long last, coming to a dark and fitful end.
Ronnie Hawkins has been down and always he's come back, but this time the climb is steeper than he's ever known before. For the first time in years he's on a long and far-flung road trip, away from the wife and children that, as he gets older, it increasingly pains him to leave, a road trip necessitated by survival, not love. Week after week he hits the honky-tonk bars in the honky-tonk places, singing the songs he's sung a thousand times before. Week after week of hoping and praying that the only thing he's ever done, the only thing he can ever do, will be good enough just one more time. "I've had a wild and reckless life," he says often these days, "and now I'm paying for my boogie-ing. They say life begins at 40, If that's the truth then, Lordy, I don't know if I can make it." Hard living, hard loving, the relentless and ravaging march of the years, big and foolish spending; they've all conspired to do him wrong.
It happens to a lot of them. The abyss they never thought would confront them suddenly appears and they struggle desperately to avoid it. Few of the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll have worn well. Chuck Berry's albums lie rotting in the cheap bins. Jerry Lee Lewis plays mostly the nothing places before nothing faces, a relic to be seen once before it dies or disappears. Fats Domino, Bill Haley, the Everly Brothers, all more confused than amused at the changing world of rock, all going or gone. Only Elvis hangs on, fat and 40, plagued by strange sicknesses and behavior, a recluse who, like a bat, emerges only at night and flees at the first threat of contact with the outside world.
Hawkins - long on talent, but short on the recognition that blessed the others in the competitive and raunchy days of rock's birth in the mid-'50s - came to Canada to seek his fame, to a Canada that was then uncharted territory, ripe for conquest. And conquer it he did, a genuine, honest-to-goodness rockabilly son of the southern soil. He was raw, unbridled funk, lean and mean, his music and manner bespeaking those dark elements of his Arkansas heritage, of gunfire and baying hounds in the humid night. "Rompin' Ronnie" they called him, "Mr. Dynamo."
Hawkins loved Canada and he loved Canadians, a gentler land and people in direct contrast, in many ways, to the more violent aspects of his past, the rednecks who came not to hear him sing but to pick a fight, the bars and roadhouses where, he would often recall, "you had to show your razor and puke twice before they'd let you in." He married Wanda, a serene and sensible girl from Toronto, started a family and began, in an earnest way, to cultivate the image from which sprang the legend. Never mind that it was an image in basic conflict with his true roots and character, it was the right one for the time and place. There were no stereotypes of the Arkansas hillbilly in Canada then - big, dumb and thoroughly debauched - so he would play the part and no one, outside his family, would be the wiser. It was an image that stood him well as he packed the bars wherever he and his band played. The money rolled in and soon he was a rich hillbilly. So he did what a rich hillbilly would do: he bought a big mansion in the country outside Toronto, a few Cadillacs, a couple of Rolls-Royces and Lincolns, a nightclub in Toronto, one in London, Ontario, a couple of farms, some vacant lots back home. He hired a chauffeur for his cars, lit his cigars with dollar bills. His name was synonymous with wild parties, booze and broads.
The stories were outrageous and often true, one of the more famous being about the time he bought his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. He walked into the dealership in Toronto dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, a windbreaker, and with hair to his shoulders. He walked up to the car and kicked the tires. The sales, man was horrified. "How much?" asked Hawkins. "I doubt if you can afford it," the salesman sniffed. "This RR on the front here, guess that stands for Rock 'n' Roll, right?" The salesman nearly collapsed. "Is that dashboard real wood?" Hawkins asked. "Of course it's real wood," snapped the salesman. "Is there a termite warranty?" asked Hawkins. The salesman was edging him toward the door. "I'd sure like this Rock'n' Roll car, I'll be back later."
He went to Honest Ed's discount store, got a shopping bag. Then he went to his bank, withdrew $18,500 cash. Then he went back to the dealership. The salesman turned white when he stomped in. "How much is this Rock'n' Roll car again?" he persisted. "Eighteen thousand, five hundred," the salesman sighed wearily. "Fine," said Hawkins, "I'll take 'er." He dumped the bag of money on the floor. The salesman's jaw dropped, his eyes popped. "Tell me," said Hawkins to the sales manager, who had come running up at that point, "how much commission would your salesman normally get on this deal?" The sales manager swallowed hard. "About $1,500," he said. "Good," said Hawkins, "then I'll just take back $1,500." He reached down, scooped it up and moments later drove the Rolls out of the showroom.
But when it came to what mattered most, Ronnie Hawkins was serious, and what mattered most was his music. Burton Cummings, a Canadian, and leader of The Guess Who rock group until it broke up recently, once said: "Ronnie Hawkins is the guy who made it possible for Canadians to happen in America." Some of the finest musicians and singers in the business learned from Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins used and supported Canadian musicians right from the beginning, something unheard of in those days. Canadian clubs and radio stations considered Canadian talent bush league, but Hawkins knew differently. He refused to play clubs that wouldn't book Canadians and he wielded his influence to prevent other U.S. acts from playing these same clubs. He urged radio stations to play Canadian records and sometimes rewarded program directors with gifts if they complied.
"Ronnie Hawkins," says Sylvia Tyson, a close friend, "took young Canadian talent and made them believe in themselves if only because he believed in them. He told them they could be just as good as anybody in the world with hard work arid dedication, and he proved it. There are a lot of singers and musicians who owe their position in the industry today to Ronnie Hawkins, who believed in them when no one else did."
Some of those who played with and learned from Hawkins and went on to stardom of their own are Bobby Curtola, Ray Hutchinson, King Biscuit Boy, Crowbar, Robbie Lane, Larry Lee, Toby Lark. John Till left to join lands Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band. Fred Carter left to become a $150,000-a-year session man in Nashville. Roy Buchanan played with Hawkins. And, of course, the most illustrious defectors, The Band - the four Canadians and one American who left in the early '60s to back Bob Dylan and became, in their own right, one of the top rock bands in the world in the early '70s. When they backed Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto they were known as The Hawks, and Levon Helm, the present leader of The Band and the only American, recalls: "There was no fooling around in a Hawkins band. A lot of guys joined, thinking it would be one big orgy. He worked your ass off. He had fines for booze, drugs, and you weren't allowed to have your girlfriends around. Nothing could interfere with learning and putting out good music. We cursed him then but, boy, we wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him. I love that man."
When Bob Dylan comes to Toronto, he always makes a point of calling on Hawkins. So do Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon. All come to worship at the shrine of a legend.
"When Dylan was in Toronto last," says Wanda Hawkins, "he booked a suite for Ron in the Harbour Castle Hotel at no charge. One night there was a party and Dylan kept following Ron everywhere, in and out of rooms, just listening to him and watching him, but Lot saying anything. Bob is very shy with people anyway. Finally Ron turned to Levon and asked why Bob was following his every footstep. Levon said 'Ronnie, you used to be one of his earliest idols, he loves you.'"
The souring of the legend of Ronnie Hawkins began in 1971 when he bought the old city hail in London, Ontario and spent almost half a million dollars transforming it into a nightclub. It became an instant white elephant. Hawkins lost almost $1 million on the operation over the next five years. He was forced to liquidate many of his assets to bail, himself out, assets that were the trappings of his legend: he sold the big house in the country, he sold the Rolls-Royce cars, a couple of Lincolns. He moved away from Toronto entirely, settling on a farm he bought a few years ago near Peterborough, Ontario. His best friend, a genial self-admitted con artist named Heavy Andrews, one of the few men Hawkins trusted, died of cancer recently and this plunged Hawkins into deep melancholia. He began to eat and drink more heavily than usual and soon l his weight ballooned to 250 pounds.
Turning 40 affected him psychologically, and more and more he questioned his present and worried about the future. It's hard to be a rock 'n' roll singer at 40, especially the rock 'n' roll singer Hawkins is, and keep it honest. He hasn't had a hit record in years. He hasn't recorded in years. He desperately wants and needs a hit record. He talks of recording again soon on his own label. He talks of earning enough money from his current tour to finance the project, maybe even reassembling some, if not all, of The Band to capture that good old sound from Roulette days, the funk that started it all. He talks of selling his failing nightclub in London for $1million and moving his family to Britain where, he says, they love him like it was yesterday. He talks of losing weight, getting in shape.
Ronnie Hawkins, a cigar in his mouth, stands before the mirror in his hotel room trimming his beard. It's 10 o'clock the morning of his opening night in Sturgeon Falls. Hawkins keeps clearing his throat, drinking from a glass of Neo Citran every few seconds. His cold is worsening. In the room with him is a songwriter from Nashville named Rockin' Reggie Vincent, a die-hard Hawkins believer who's traveled all the way to Sturgeon Falls with a song he's written especially for him. It's an oldfashioned rock 'n' roll tune and Hawkins likes it. Also in the room is Nick Panaseiko, promotion manager for Quality Records of Canada, which is showing more than a passing interest in Hawkins these days.
"Lordy," moans Hawkins, coughing. "I stopped drinking four months ago and I ain't felt good since. The germs, they must of been afraid to get inside me when I was full of booze and now that I'm clear, they's just marching in." Retie Vincent looks concerned. "Are you all right, Hawk?"
"Don't know son, it's bad, real bad."
Then, for no apparent reason, he picks up the phone and places a call to Levon Helm in Arkansas. He stands, leaning against the wall while the phone rings, his belly drooping over his underwear. "Hello there," he bellows. "Is this my little blond-haired drummer boy? This is the teenage idol from the north country fair. Listen, son, you'd better catch a plane and get up here right away. I need you. This is serious, son, don't laugh. I'm so far north that Admiral Byrd turned back 50 miles south of here. Why, the people here, when they run out of strangers to shoot, they start shooting themselves. Goodness gracious, son, it's bad. They call this the pickerel fishing Capital of Canada. That's because nobody can get this far north to catch 'em. Lordy, I'm telling you, son, I dropped into the club to see what it was like and there was bullet holes and bloodstains behind the stage. Son, this place is so bad, Lon Chaney wouldn't come here under a full moon."
The barrage of one-liners flows for several more minutes before Hawkins hangs up. Vincent hands him a new sheet of lyrics to the song he's written for him. "Better read it for me, babe," says Hawkins gravely. "I never did learn to read or write."
Hawkins, of course, can read and he can write. In fact, he can probably read and write better than most people. Although his father, Jasper Newton Hawkins, was a poorly educated hillbilly (who later became a barber) from Hawkins Holler in the Ozarks, his mother, Flora Belle, was a teacher with a master's degree in English. Education was heavily stressed in the Hawkins house. His only sister, Bobby Winnifred, five years older, is a PhD and university professor today and owner of an art gallery in New York. Hawkins himself was an excellent student and attended the University of Arkansas for four years, where he majored in physical education. He was a superior gymnast and swimmer.
But music was always his first love, thanks to a public school teacher named Elizabeth Shipley, who taught him to sing and love Stephen Foster songs - which, in private, he sings to this day - and a black shoeshine boy named Buddy Hayes, who had a parlor on Dixon Street in Fayetteville, where Hawkins grew up. "My daddy'd take me along and I'd sit in the corner in the back of Buddy's shop while they all picked and sang. My goodness, he could sing. They'd drink whisky, mess with women, tell dirty jokes and go to church on Sunday. My momma was super-religious, my daddy was a super-wild. He drank enough whisky to kill 10 men. When he goes, I want his liver."
Talk like this upsets and confuses his sister. "Why he has to say things like that, why he's done some of the things he has, things that have hurt his family and friends, I don't know. Because Ronald is not like that, not at all. If he would just be his true self instead of putting on this act all the time, he'd be a so much nicer and happier person. He's insecure, really. He doesn't know who he is yet.
"I love Ronald, he's my only brother and I love him deeply, but it hurts me to see the way he is sometimes. He's so much better than some of these - these bums he hangs around with. I just wish he had more self-esteem. I pray for him."
"I've been hurt by some of the things that have been said and maybe even happened regarding Ron with other women," says his wife, Wanda. "But that's the way he is. I know he loves me deeply and he knows I love him. I hear these stories, but I never ask him about them and he never tells me and I don't ever want to know. He's a wonderful father, husband, and we're happy."
Hawkins says: "I've heard and read a lot of things about me that ain't true, about women and all, but when you're what I am, that's the price you pay."
Nevertheless, Hawkins does little, if anything to counter the image. Few know that he sends his two oldest boys to an expensive private school, or that he sent them to an exclusive French school for the first five years of their education because he wanted them to be bilingual. Few know he can converse knowledgeably on American history, quote Shakespeare, and prefers listening to classical music over any other. And that Arkansas drawl and fractured English - both a put-on after 18 years in Canada.
Beneath the facade is a man of kindness and decency, and he's been exploited because of it. This is the main reason why he trusts few people in the rock 'n' roll business, especially those who have wanted - have tried - to help hh1l capture the greatness that he's so capable of, but which has eluded him all these years. One of the very first recording companies he signed with in the '50s, before coming to Canada, sent him on a lavish promotional tour and then, in the end, hit him with a $29,000 bill. When John Lennon and Yoko Ono and their entourage stayed at Hawkins' home in 1970 while promoting their peace festival, they left a shambled house and a $15,000 phone bill. Hawkins, foolishly, he admits, paid it. That same year, he went on a world tour of his own to promote a record his new company, Atlantic Records, couldn't be bothered promoting. It cost him $25,000. The record bombed and he never got it back. "I was so close to the big time with the Atlantic deal," he says. "I really thought this time I'd make it, but the records were poorly produced and promoted." Several companies have approached him since about signing contracts, but Hawkins has backed away. "Ronnie wants to do it all by himself," says a friend. "He won't put himself into the hands of people who are experts. He's gun-shy. Who can blame him? He's been ripped bad a few times."
It hurts, too, that those he developed not only upped and left him but did little afterwards to show their appreciation. "Musicians are the same everywhere," he says. "They show no gratitude. Over the years I've loaned maybe half a million dollars to musicians and friends and people in trouble and I get nothing in return. Give them your heart and they want your soul."
The show goes well. The crowd is not large but it is enthusiastic and a few people even shout for some of his old songs. He sings them all, his voice thickened by the cold and 41 years, his movements reduced to a gentle rocking from side to side. After his last set, at 1 a.m., a group of fans ask him to join them for a drink. He thanks them, but declines. A pretty girl comes up, tries to guide him to her table. He gently breaks away, smiles, pats her cheek. He asks me to drive him back to his motel.
"Used to be," he says, his black stetson pulled low on his forehead, his head resting on the back of the seat, "that I would of stayed. Used tome when I could go through four bottles of whisky, five girls, sleep an hour and come back and boogie some more. Now I can't. I'm too tired to chase 'em and too tired to do anything with 'em when I catch 'em."
We drive in silence. Finally, I ask him what he will do if, for some reason, he doesn't make it this time, if his hopes fall to pieces again as they have so often in the past. He doesn't answer and I think maybe he's fallen asleep.
"Son," he says at length, "I've been a honky-tonk rockabilly for 25 years. I guess I can be one for another 25 years. I got me a lovely wife, three children, a roof over my head and bread on the table. Maybe that's the real big time, not this - this 41-year-old man going out to compete with the Osmonds."
He gets out of the car, fumbles in the dark for his key. The chill makes him cough. "My daddy," he says, "my daddy once told me, 'Son, I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was.' I like that. That'll be enough."