Today Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins turns 83. This article celebrates the life and sound of Fayetteville’s most prodigious son (sorry Bill). So crack open the crown and drink to the man who gave this city rock n roll.
Most of us know Ronnie ‘The Hawk’ Hawkins from Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. During The Band’s rendition of “Who Do You Love”, The Hawk releases a series of ascending snarls (a la Yosemite Sam), before the band erupts into instrumental climax. About 60 percent of Ronnie’s contribution to the performance is made up of hollers and growls. The other 40 percent is him joshing the band and making bugged out expressions at no one in particular.
If you want to talk about weird and wild in Fayetteville, you start with The Hawk.
Ronnie Hawkins was born in Huntsville, AR on January 10, 1935. This is where his Uncle Delmar’s fiddling at Saturday night dances and “the last medicine and minstrel shows [in] backwoods America” provided his introduction to musical performance. His family made up a good part of the population of Huntsville at the time. They were regarded as a violent and rancorous kind, something short of criminal.
In 1945 Hawkins moved to Fayetteville with his parents and siblings. When he was fourteen-years-old, he received a hardship license to drive himself to school. He began bootlegging liquor from Fayetteville to Beale Street shortly after.
Hawkins had the same disappointed and restless disposition that many young people in Fayetteville feel today:
“It was in high school that I really started listening to music. I didn’t like white country much, though that’s pretty much all you could find around Fayetteville. Mom and Dad listened to Grand Ole Opry but I never did like that stuff as much as the blues.”
After high school, Hawkins formed the first iteration of his band, The Hawks. The band played “garage parties and the Huntsville Festival” and got a regular gig at The Rockwood Club in Fayetteville. The group disbanded around 1957 when Hawkins had a brief stint with the military. He would reform the band and play regularly during his five years at the University of Arkansas.
Ronnie majored in physical education and continued to bootleg liquor, play university dances, perform as a clown diver for money on the side. Oh, and he also never paid a dime for school. He says he “lived on a full athletic scholarship…they just didn’t know it”.
Ronnie saved up his money from his various endeavors to purchase The Rockwood Club, where he had played in high school. This venue brought Jerry Lee Lewis, Wanda Jackson, Sonny Burgess, and others to Fayetteville under Ronnie’s management. The Cate Brothers also began their musical careers there performing as The Del Rays. The club is ground zero for Fayetteville rock n roll.
In his own performances Ronnie developed a style that incorporated backflips and “the camel walk”, similar to Chuck Berry’s duck walk. His high energy on stage was paralleled by his notorious parties which often devolved into “orgies”. His wild habits would continue even after he was married. (Check out this account of one of Ronnie’s parties at the Playhouse in London in the late 60s here).
In 1958 Ronnie moved to Canada, to capitalize on an untapped consumer market. He still owned the Rockwood club, which he operated remotely, in addition to the many different venues in Toronto. It was in Toronto that Ronnie recruited Robbie Roberson, Levon Helm, and the rest of the boys as his house band. He whipped them into a well-oiled machine with his relentless practice regimen. You could call him the James Brown of Rockabilly for his tyrannical direction. That’s part of the reason The Band decided to leave Ronnie for Bob Dylan. They couldn’t stand playing Ronnie’s songs every night, exactly the way Ronnie wanted them to. Roberson, Helm, and the boys were after “art” or something like that. Money and a good time is all The Hawk required.
In 1969, Ronnie hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono at his home after they had been barred from the United States. The couple were desperately trying to pull together the John and Yoko Peace festival. They ran Ronnie’s phone bill into the tens of thousands pleading with artists in Europe and elsewhere to play. They were strung out most of the time and nearly collapsed Ronnie’s ceiling one day when they passed out in the bathtub with the water running. Ronnie seems to have had mixed feelings about the event.
The Hawk has always been on the periphery of fame. Despite his reputation as an entertainer and contributions as a band leader, he never seemed to breakthrough. Even in his home town, Fayetteville, it feels like people don’t really know his name. But today you can learn it and remember it too. I mean, hell, it’s his birthday after all.
“Rock n roll is a process…not just what’s done, but how it’s done, and why.”
Ronnie Hawkins contributed more to rock n roll with his stage antics than with his music. He took most of his songs from black songwriters. “40 Days” is a half-assed modification of “30 days” by Chuck Berry. He straight up stole “Who do you Love” from Bo Diddley. While he may not have written his material, The Hawk tore it up in his own way.
His hiccups, hollers, whoops, and growls are out of this world. The Cramps’ Lux Interior does sloppy punk version of the rockabilly hiccup on “Can’t Hardly Stand It” the can’t stand-up to accuracy and intensity of Ronnie’s high-speed sissy-swell on “40 Days”. His vocalizations aren’t the passive swoons of Roy Orbison or Elvis. The stuff gets you dancing. Ronnie makes sounds that make you want to slap yourself in the face and kick a hole in the wall.
He also made sure his bands were intense and sharp enough to sustain his energy on stage. Just listen to the band behind him on “40 Days”. Listen to how fast they’re playing. The guitar solo is out of this world. The drums If you tried to twist to that you would just get twisted.
The band doesn’t miss a lick. It’s fast, but it’s not sloppy. I don’t think there was any producer in 1960 who could clean up mistakes on a track with that tempo: it had to happen live. Ronnie had his band primed and ready to go.”40 Days” has the same hillbilly aggression of The Cramps’ “Can’t Hardly Stand It”, but The Hawks’ song possesses a commercial glean that wrongly disqualifies it as a punk rock aggression. The Hawks plays high speed but with a finesse and attention to detail keeps him in the same realm as high gloss rockers like Elvis Presley or Roy Orbison.
This is heavy rock n roll. Party music. Get drunk and act wild music. Burn down the back porch and head for the city lights music. It’s the roots of rock n roll in Fayetteville, AR.
-All source material was taken from Ronnie’s autobiography, Ronnie Hawkins: Last of the Good Ol Boys by Ronnie Hawkins and Peter Goodard.
Check out our Ronnie Hawkins playlist on Spotify