Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly singer who helped shape and launch the Band and other Canadian rock artists, died on Sunday after battling a long-term illness. He was 87.
Hawkins’ death was confirmed to the CBC by his wife, Wanda: “He went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever.”
The musician, revered by his peers and followers as ‘the Hawk,’ grew his reputation with his highest-charting single, ‘Mary Lou’ which reached No. 26 in the U.S. charts. The Hawk was famous for his stage presence, characterised by his robust vocals and humourous exchanges, including his signature “camel walk” dance.
The Arkansas native began touring in Ontario in 1958. By the time he was featured in a CBC Telescope documentary, he was beloved by Canadian artists and audiences.
“You know, I don’t know anything about Canadian politics, the price of wheat or Niagara Falls,” he said in the documentary. “But I sure do know one thing: I sure dig it up here.”
As a young man, Hawkins enlisted in the National Guard and the army, but his main interest was always music as he began playing in local bars in 1953. In 1959, Hawkins scored a deal with Roulette Records, leading ‘Forty Days,’ ‘Mary Lou’ and an appearance on American Bandstand.
As one of the early pioneers and legends of that instinctive combination of country soul and blues known as Rockabilly, Hawkins’ catalogue spans a unique hybrid of rustic sounds as he worked with many bands over the years. However, it was The Band’s specific five who would help establish the Hawk’s reputation in music lore.
Hawkins recorded and collaborated with several of the greats from Duane Allman to Bob Dylan – whom he portrayed in Dylan’s widely panned film Renaldo and Clara. Notoriously, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were guests of his farm during an extended Toronto stay in 1969.
His mentorship of Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson would eventually lead the band to back Bob Dylan for his around-the-world 1966 tour. The five all met playing with Hawkins, who famously hired them one by one to perform alongside him across rural North America as “the Hawks,” until their split.
The Band would go on to make its own mark as a critically acclaimed group with albums and hits such as ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ and ‘The Weight.’
“We should thank Ronnie Hawkins in being so instrumental in us coming together and for teaching us the ‘code of the road,’ so to speak,” said Robertson when the Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1994.
As an honorary Canadian, Hawkins won a Juno Award for country male vocalist of the year in 1982 and received lifetime achievement awards from both the Junos in 1996 and the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) in 2007. In 2014, he accepted an honorary appointment as an officer of the Order of Canada.
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