Ronnie Hawkins, a brash rockabilly star from Arkansas who became a patron of the Canadian music scene after moving north and recruiting a handful of local musicians later known as the Band, has died, the AP reports. His wife Wanda confirmed to the Canadian Press that Hawkins died Sunday morning after an illness. He was 87. “He went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever,” she said by telephone. Born just two days after Elvis Presley, the Huntsville native friends called “The Hawk” (He also nicknamed himself “The King of Rockabilly” and “Mr. Dynamo”) was a hell-raiser with a big jaw and a stocky build. He had minor hits in the 1950s with “Mary Lou” and “Odessa” and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where acts included such early rock stars as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty.
Hawkins, who during his lifetime mentored numerous young Canadian musicians who went on to successful careers including guitarist Pat Travers and future Janis Joplin guitarist John Till, didn’t have the gifts of Presley or Perkins, but he did have ambition and an eye for talent. He first performed in Canada in the late ’50s and realized he would stand out far more in a country where homegrown rock still barely existed. Canadian musicians had often moved to the US to advance their careers, but Hawkins was the rare American to try the reverse. With drummer and fellow Arkansan Levon Helm, Hawkins put together a Canadian backing group that included guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko. They became the Hawks, educated in the Hawkins school of rock.
Robertson and friends backed Hawkins from 1961-63, putting on raucous shows around Canada and recording a howling cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” that became one of Hawkins’ signature songs. But Hawkins wasn’t selling many records and the Hawks outgrew their leader. They hooked up with Bob Dylan in the mid-’60s and by the end of the decade were superstars on their own who had renamed themselves the Band. Hawkins, meanwhile, settled in Peterborough, Ontario, and had a handful of top 40 singles there, including “Bluebirds in the Mountain” and “Down in the Alley.” Hawkins kept in touch with the Band and was among the guests in 1976 for the all-star, farewell concert that was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz. He also appeared in Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clarathe big-budget fiasco Heaven’s Gateand Hello Mary Lou. A 2007 documentary about Hawkins, Alive and Kickin’was narrated by Dan Aykroyd and featured a cameo from another famous Arkansan, Bill Clinton.
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