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30 May 2022

Ronnie Hawkins, Rock’n’Roll Pioneer And Mentor To The Band, Dies At 87

Ronnie Hawkins
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Ronnie Hawkins — the rock’n’roll pioneer whose group, The Hawks at one point featured members of The Band — has died. Hawkins’ wife Wanda confirmed that her husband died early yesterday morning (29 May) following a long illness. “He went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever,” she told Canadian press in a phone interview. He was 87 years old.

Hawkins was born in Huntsville, Arkansas in 1935, and his family relocated to Fayetteville when he was a child. He caught the musical bug at a young age, and started playing in local bars in 1953. Local musician Levon Helm — who would go on to play drums and sing in The Band — joined Hawkins’ group, The Hawks, five years later.

Around that time, Hawkins relocated to Hamilton, Ontario. Hawkins worked the bar circuit, winning fans with his magnetic stage presence, crack band and punishing schedule. “When I started playing rock ’n’ roll,” he said, “you were two pay grades below a prisoner of war.” He scored a hit with his version of Hey, Bo Diddley. Hawkins cut his first album shortly after — a self-titled disc for Roulette Records featuring the minor hits Forty Days and Mary Lou. The singer became known as “Mr Dynamo” and “Rompin’ Ronnie” due to his gregarious dance moves, which included the “camel walk.”

His band the Hawks featured a rotating line-up of up and coming musicians – the band served as a rock’n’roll finishing school of sorts. The early 60s line-up included Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Robbie Robertson — who went on to become Bob Dylan’s backing musicians and later recorded as The Band. Other Hawks alumni included members of Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band, David Clayton Thomas of Blood Sweat & Tears, actor Beverly D’Angelo, and more.

In 1969, Hawkins hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono at his ranch outside Toronto during their world tour to promote world peace as the Plastic Ono Band. Bob Dylan was a longtime fan who in 1975 cast Hawkins to play the role of “Bob Dylan” in his experimental road movie Renaldo and Clara.

Hawkins’ explosive performance of Who Do You Love? was a highlight of Martin Scorsese’s iconic 1978 rockumentary The Last Waltz, which chronicled the Band’s farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in November 1976. Hawkins was one of several guest performers, alongside Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and Neil Young. Hawkins would reunite with the Band in 1989 for a concert celebrating the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

Hawkins looked back at his career in his 1989 autobiography, Last of the Good Ol’ Boys. “Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars,” he said. “I guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.”

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