Ronnie Hawkins, Rockabilly Star and The Band’s First Leader, Dies at 87
Ronnie Hawkins—the rockabilly star whose group the Hawks at one point featured pre-fame members of the Band—has died, CBC reports. Hawkins’ wife Wanda confirmed to the Canadian press that her husband died early this morning (May 29) 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, though his family relocated to Fayetteville when he was a child. He was enraptured by music from a young age, and began 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 on the recommendation of country singer Conway Twitty. Hawkins played the bar circuit and achieved a hit with his version of “Hey, Bo Diddley.” He cut his first full-length shortly after—a self-titled disc for Roulette Records. Like most of Hawkins’ catalog, the album featured a number of covers, including minor hits “Forty Days” and “Mary Lou.” Hawkins scored one of his biggest singles with a rendition of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” Hawkins’ live performances crackled with energy; the singer became known as “Mr. Dynamo” and “Rompin’ Ronnie” due to his gregarious dancing, which included the “camel walk.”
His band the Hawks featured a rotating lineup. One edition 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 and Tears, actor Beverly D’Angelo, and more.
Hawkins featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s iconic 1978 rockumentary The Last Waltz, which chronicled the Band’s farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in ’76. 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’ final album Still Cruisin’ arrived in 2002, however he was hosting longtime friends Kris Kristofferson and Gordon Lightfoot for recording sessions at his home studio as recently as 2016.