Rockabilly music legend Ronnie Hawkins dead at 87

Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly star from Arkansas who became a patron of Canadian music and was backed by musicians who later morphed into The Band, died Sunday, his wife said. He was 87.

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The singer’s wife, Wanda Hawkins, confirmed to The Canadian Press that Hawkins died at a hospital in Peterborough, Ontario.

“He went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever,” she said in a telephone interview from their home.

Hawkins was noted for songs such as “Ruby Baby,” “Mary Lou” and the Bo Diddley cover “Who Do You Love.” He earned several nicknames through the years, including Mr. Dynamo, Sir Ronnie, Rompin’ Ronnie and the Hawk.

Hawkins formed the Hawks, and five members of the group -- Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel -- played with the singer during the 1950s and early 1960s, Rolling Stone reported. After the quintet left the group in 1963, they formed The Band four years later.

“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,” Robertson said during The Band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Although Hawkins had a testy relationship with The Band after their departure, he joined them onstage in 1976 for a concert that was memorialized two years later in the film “The Last Waltz,” according to The Canadian Press.

“He was really good at gathering musicians that he thought were the best around,” Robertson said in a 2016 interview with the newspaper. “It was like a boot camp for musicians to go through, learn the music and when to do certain things and not do certain things. He just played a real pivotal part in all of it.”

Hawkins also played for Bob Dylan when the folk singer embraced the electric guitar during his 1966 concert tour, according to The Canadian Press.

Ronald Cornett Hawkins was born on Jan. 10, 1935, two days after Elvis Presley, in Huntsville, Arkansas, according to The New York Times. When he was 9, his family moved to nearby Fayetteville, where his father, Jasper Hawkins, opened a barbershop and his mother, Flora Hawkins, taught school.

Ronnie Hawkins began playing music at the barbershop, where a shoeshine boy named Buddy Hayes had a blues band that rehearsed with a piano player named Little Joe, the newspaper reported.

After dropping out of the University of Arkansas, Hawkins joined the Army in 1957 and quit later that year to pursue music.

He started a band backed by Black musicians called the Black Hawks and played rock ‘n’ roll music, The Canadian Press reported. He eventually gave himself top billing and began playing as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, creating a bad-boy look with his slicked-back black hair and sideburns.

“Hawkins is the only man I ever heard who can make a nice sexy song like ‘My Gal is Red Hot’ sound sordid,” Greil Marcus wrote in his book about music and American culture, “Mystery Train,” The Associated Press reported.

In 1958, Hawkins followed the advice of country singer Conway Twitty, who said that American rock ‘n’ roll bands could make a killing in Canada, the Times reported. He moved to a place he once said was “cold as an accountant’s heart” and became a success, according to the newspaper.

By the end of the decade, Hawkins had two singles on the Billboard Top 100 and appeared on “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand,” according to The Canadian Press.

Musician Gary Lucas, who met Hawkins when he was 16, said that Hawkins left an impression when he performed.

“He was doing double backflips on a stage in the middle of a song,” Lucas told the newspaper. “I’ve never seen that before or since.”

Hawkins wrote roughly 500 songs and received numerous awards.

He won a Juno in 1982 for best country male vocalist for the album “Legend In His Spare Time.” He was honored with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in October 2002,

While Hawkins went back to Arkansas for many winters and was a friend of Bill Clinton, he said he considered Canada his home, according to The Canadian Press.

“There’s no place in the world more beautiful than Canada. I’ve made a lot of good friends here. A lot of outlaws,” he said in 2000.

Hawkins said he loved touring, but playing in bars and roadhouses was not a glamorous occupation, the Times reported.

“When I started playing rock ‘n’ roll,” Hawkins once said, “you were two pay grades below a prisoner of war.”

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