BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
In 1976, at age 41, Ronnie Hawkins was as old as Elvis. And like Elvis, he was packing some weight around the middle. But unlike Elvis, then rumoured to be near retirement (he died the following year), the Hawk had no plans yet to quit. “I still wanna play,” he told me. “As long as these young ladies keep coming out to hear us, I wanna boogie.” But, he added jokingly, “if I don’t hit the big time in the next 20 or 30 years, I’m gonna pack it in.”
Hawkins had been based in Canada for 18 years. He came up from the hills of Arkansas when the competition for gigs in the southern United States was fierce (“9,000 bands and only 50 clubs to play”) and found a welcoming home for his rockabilly music in the bars of Toronto.
He liked playing bars. Occasionally, he got booked to play a concert venue, but didn’t think it was as much fun. “We’re geared for drinkin’ and dancin’ and cuttin’ up,” he said. “The music always sounds better in a bar. How can you boogie with 20,000 people you can’t see? There’s no point in playing Maple Leaf Gardens unless you’ve got Bob Dylan playing rhythm guitar.”
Hawkins, of course, had an indirect link with Dylan that contributed in part to the Hawk’s enduring status as a living legend. The Band, then about to embark on its last-waltz tour, had ridden to popularity on Dylan’s coattails. Before that, as The Hawks, the Band had played backup for Hawkins. Another link with Dylan would be forged in 1978 when Hawkins appeared in the movie Renaldo and Clara. Hawkins would stand in for Dylan on screen while Dylan – who wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical film – would play the eponymous Renaldo.
Though constantly busy as a performer, Hawkins was perceived in the music industry as more of a talent spotter than a talent; more of a coach than a player. “The drill sergeant of Canadian rock ’n’ roll,” The Globe and Mail called him. People went to his shows hoping to see another rising star or two in the ranks. The leading contender when I saw the group was blues harp virtuoso Richard Newell, otherwise known as King Biscuit Boy. Newell had recently signed a deal with Epic Records in the U.S. and would later flourish as a solo artist. But he battled alcoholism and died young.
I asked Hawkins about The Band; how he felt about their success. “They’re better than the Beatles,” he said. “But I could be biased because I taught these guys how to play.” He was surprised how much country The Band added to their music after they left him to go on their own. “They were much more into the blues when they played with me.”
I also asked him about John and Yoko, who had stayed at Hawkins’s Mississauga mansion in 1969 when they came to Canada for their first Plastic Ono Band gig. How did Hawkins get to be their host? “I knew the guy promoting the show,” he laughed. Lennon and Ono apparently didn’t like hotels (though they later staged one of their so-called bed-ins for peace at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel) and wanted to stay at a private home. “I was very honoured,” said Hawkins.
Hawkins had been out of the limelight for a couple of years when I saw him perform, but was now ready to rock again. “Wine, women and a good-timin’ song, that’s the story of my life,” he said. “This is our 18th comeback. I’ve made more comebacks than (world boxing champion) Sugar Ray Robinson.” But then, as if to confuse me, the veteran rocker added that he never knew what the newspapers meant when they said he was warming up for another comeback. “I’ve never been anywhere to make a comeback from,” Hawkins insisted. “I’ve always done the same old thing – rockabilly.”
That “same old thing” included one song, Forty Days, that Hawkins had recorded when he first came to Canada. “It’s the one that took us from the hills and stills and put us on the pills,” he said. To translate: It was the song that allowed him to leave his rural home-distilling background behind and try more sophisticated urban mind-altering substances. Other crowd favourites included Who Do You Love, Patricia, Bluebirds Over the Mountain and a raft of other country-tinged rock tunes from the ’60s and ‘70s. To keep the crowd in the right mood, Hawkins shouted out between songs: “Everybody get drunk. The more you drink the better we sound.” A person didn’t have to take lessons from Arthur Murray to dance to his kind of music, Hawkins said. “All you need is a drink.”
That drinking-and-dancing image continued to define every Hawkins show for years afterwards, even when he dispensed with the hillbilly gear and donned a tuxedo to play the elegant Imperial Room of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel during the early 1980s. He said his fondest dream was to turn Maple Leaf Gardens into a giant honky-tonk for one night. “Dancin’ and drinkin’, waitresses and everything,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Then I’d know I was in the big time.” When he got his own network TV show in 1981, it was fittingly called Honky Tonk. It ran for one seven-month season on CTV.
Hawkins stopped drinking in 1985 after being diagnosed with a heart condition. In 2002, he stopped performing after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The doctors gave him six months but Hawkins beat the odds and survived. The cancer, remarkably, went away. Hawkins said the cure came about through a combination of psychic cleansing and alternative therapies. He returned to performing, no longer in the bars but occasionally for short stints at music festivals and other special events.
As he approached his 80th birthday in 2014, he was still going strong. “I don’t know who’s left to hear us,” he said on his website. “But if there are people who want the real thing, we’ve got it. I plan to keep doing it till nobody shows up to see us any more.” That year he was named to the Order of Canada, as an honorary appointee because he still retains his American citizenship.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.