R.I.P. Ronnie Hawkins, 1935-2022

Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars. I guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.

Ronnie Hawkins, “Last of the Good Ol’ Boys,” 1989
Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Robertson blasting “Who Do You Love,” The Last Waltz, 1976

The Hawk is dead. Ronnie Hawkins, Arkansas native and Canadian transplant died May 29 after a long illness. The epitome of rockabilly music, he was a sensational live act, a mentor to the musicians who later became The Band and a linch pin in the evolution of rock and roll.

Most folks only know the Hawk from his appearance as the first artist in Martin Scorese’s film “The Last Waltz,” where he scorched the crowd with a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” at one point fanning Robbie Robertson’s guitar with his signature white cowboy hat. As raucous and rocking’ as the Hawk was in that performance, for Ronnie Hawkins, it was pretty restrained. When WC saw the Hawk at The Quiet Knight in the middle 1970s, he was doing backflips and splits as a part of his act. He was a pretty good guitarist, too: his solos on “Forty Days” brought down the house.

Ronnie Hawkins broke into music in Arkansas, but on the recommendation of Conway Twitty (!) he relocated to Canada in the late 1950s, “bringing torrid southern blues and rockabilly rhythms to the frozen north,” as he put it. There he brought together Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson as his backing band, The Hawks, which in 1963 split off to become The Band, a truly seminal rock and roll band. In 1994, when The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Helm and Robertson made a point of thanking Hawkins, “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.”

He didn’t have any big hits, but especially in Canada, he had enduring popularity for his amazing live shows. And his influence as an artist, as a mentor, as a larger-than-life musician and as a proponent of the rockabilly sound, was huge.

“Who Do You Love?” Yeah, we loved you, Hawk.

R.I.P. Ronnie Hawkins, 1935-2022.

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