I am sitting across from Mr. Dynamo.
Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins himself.
And he just showed me an old wooden one-hitter pipe that he claims John Lennon left at his house back in the early 1970s. I hold it, then pass it along to his road manager who opens it up, and sees that it’s packed with weed. Is that Lennon’s, too?
Hawkins might tell you, but you’ll never know if it’s true or not. That is, you’ll never know if it’s accurate –- everything he says sure feels true in one way or another. It’s as if, as a storyteller, the man -– among the few honest-to-goodness rock’n’roll legends still walking this earth –- can’t for the life of him hit a false note. And he’s remarkably up front about it.
"It has nothing to do with whether it’s true or whether it ain't," he drawls, his trickster grin pulling you, pulling everyone, in. “If the story’s good, it can be a lie.”
Ronnie Hawkins was born in Arkansas in 1935. An early aficionado of rhythm and blues, by the 1950s Hawkins had developed his act and was touring the club circuit riding the wave of interest in white rockabilly artists like Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. But by the late ‘50s, it was clear that he was but a small fish in a mighty huge pond, and so on Conway Twitty's advice he made his way, quite ingeniously, to Toronto, Canada.
Suddenly, Ronnie Hawkins was a blue whale in a bathtub.
Instantly billed as the authentic real deal –- an American playing American music sold well in provincial, culturally insecure 1950s Toronto –- Hawkins found himself the hottest act in town. What’s more, by extraordinary luck or foresight or genius (or combination thereof), he managed to gather a few of the very best young musicians in the world to be his backing band, the Hawks. He had the style, they had the substance.
Hell, one of these incarnations would go on to back Bob Dylan by the mid-60s, and be reborn a few years later as The Band. You may have heard of them.
Meanwhile, Hawkins reigned over Yonge Street’s strip of bars and rock’n’roll clubs, burlesque joints and seedy booze cans. His band had a revolving door of talent, and while he made record after record (few of which sold terribly well), his reputation as an epic performer, a heroic partier, and a uniquely talented raconteur grew at an exponential rate. By the late 1970s, he was more legend than man, the embodiment of a certain fantasy about the rock’n’roll fraternity: it seemed like Hawkins was the pin around which the whole goddamn thing turned. Friends with everyone, admired by all, Ronnie Hawkins had become a living myth.
It was no surprise that when a long-lost Canadian John Lennon interview from 1969 turned up recently that the reel-to-reel tape had been recorded at Hawkin's mansion -- after all, John and Yoko lived there for a time -- or that Hawkins got stoned with Lennon and Pierre Trudeau, together.
Now in 2013, Ronnie Hawkins has embarked on his farewell tour. After a few exclusive and hotly anticipated dates across Ontario over the next weeks, the curtain will fall on a 50 year career as storied, influential, and plainly important as any you can name.
The Hawk sat down for a long, wide-ranging conversation with HuffPost Canada Music in his Toronto hotel room. He looked tired, haggard, and drawn as we began. But, as if a switch had been flipped, he lit up with the first question, the first opportunity to regale me with stories, tales, lies, and legends from the long, winding road of his life. At every turn, his warmth, his humour, and his profane wisdom flowed like the booze that fuelled so much of his story. A helluva ride.
Q&A continues after video slideshow
I know you must be tired, so we’ll keep this…
Ronnie Hawkins: Oh, I’m just wore out. I’m old! 80 years old. They took me out of the “home” to get me here.
Well, it’s good to see you. I mean, ten years ago we were told you had a terminal disease.
They gave me 90 days or less. They cut me open to see if [the cancer] was operable. And they couldn’t get it. And they zipped me back up. 90 days or less to live.
How do you respond to a death sentence like that?
I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to die in 90 days, I might as well go out like a rocket!’ So we ordered whisky and booze and dope. Dope that Bob Dylan hadn’t even heard of. And we partied, boy. It woulda killed Charles Atlas, what we did. Never mind me that’s supposed to die! But anyway, all of a sudden I got to feeling better. I took that last CAT Scan… it was completely gone. I don’t know how it happened. But I was one of the luckiest cats in the world, they said.
As an artist, did you find that you were reinvigorated? Did you want to get back out on the road after beating that rap?
No, no. That isn’t for me. I’m ready to retire. I’m going to go out one last time for a few dates. Then I’m going to disappear.
They’re billing these shows as “intimate evenings with Ronnie Hawkins.” What does that mean?
I don’t know who named it that but I guess it's alright. All I do is I'm going to do about five songs, the five songs that changed my career as I went along. And I'll tell a bunch of stories.
You've said it'll be “a few songs and some lies."
That's it! If I was Pinocchio, my nose would be in China. I can tell some lies. But, you see, I told 'em a long time ago. It ain't whether it's true or false. It's how good the story is. It has nothing to do with whether it's true or whether it ain't. If the story's good, it can be a lie.
But then where does the legend end and the man begin? How do we separate out the man from the myth?
Ain't no way. I’ve been trying to do that myself for years. Can’t do it.
The story of your arrival in Toronto has practically become the creation myth for Canadian rock’n’roll.
I've been the luckiest bugger in the world. Music's all I ever wanted to do and Canada has been the Promised Land. See [down south] we'd been playing bars so rough you had to show them a razor and puke twice before they'd let you in. Some rough-ass bars.
And Toronto offered you a chance to make it. Do you think the scene would have taken off like it did without your influence?
Oh, I know it would have happened. It might have taken a little bit longer. You know, Canada's always had so much talent, it's scary. But I used to have to tell the club owners that bands was American. In fact, I used to loan my car [with Arkansas plates] to acts that nobody knew. I'd tell 'em they were from Arkansas. Because those old club owners said 'Canadians won’t come out to see a Canadian act.' I said 'I don't think that's true for hockey! I think a few of ‘em come out to see a Canadian play some hockey!” But, anyway, that's what we'd have to do. Then they'd play there for a month or two, finally tell the owner they were Canadian. But they already had the job.
They wouldn't book Canadians for some reason. When I look back I say: 'Boy, I was lucky they didn't!' Because, boy, it didn't take long for them bands to get really good.
The Canadian insecurity complex, I guess. They figured you were authentic because you were American, while the local acts were just copying?
Well, rock'n'roll, a course, depending on how you interpret it, started with just the blues, rhythm and blues. And then a poor white cat that couldn't copy it right -- like me -- tried it and it just came out different. So it's not rhythm and blues anymore. I wanted to sound like Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Ray Charles, but it come out more like Ernest Tubbs! So I couldn't do that stuff. That's why I hired [future pianist and vocalist for The Band] Richard Manuel and I brought him into my band. With his throat, he could do that stuff. And he did it well, boy.
Yeah, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. “Turn on your lovelight, and let it shine on me.” He was a he-ro of ours. I took [the Hawks] on a tour down south. Colleges, mostly. And Richard [Manuel] just tore ‘em up. Man, they were giving him standing ovations everywhere we played. Because no white band had ever sung that stuff yet. We were the first ones to start playing Motown and that rhythm and blues stuff. Because we had a band that could do it. With [future organist in The Band] Garth Hudson on the saxophone, we could fake all the stuff.
Back then, white bands really didn't play so-called black music?
I tell you what, you had to be special. Nowadays, everyone can do it, just about. But they couldn't back then. I mean, I was looking for singers that could sound like Ray Charles. A lot of them tried, but they wasn't any good! So I didn't use them. Richard [Manuel] was the first one to sing “Georgia [on my Mind]" and make it sound almost as good as Ray Charles.
Can you account for that at all?
I don't know why. They were all from Stratford [Ontario]. There’s something in the water in Stratford, I guess, because a lot of good musicians come outta there for some reason. A dozen of mine came outta there, and every one went on to be big time. John Till [guitarist for a mid-60s incarnation of the Hawks] was in Janis Joplin’s band. That’s the Full Tilt Boogie –- he's from Stratford.
And little what’s-his-name, he's hot as hell, he's from Stratford.
Beaver. Yeah. He's a Stratford boy. And he ain't doing too bad. He looks like he's having lots of fun. I'd like to be with him.
Once they got used to it, Canadian acts really started to take off.
I was going to be one of them Nostradamuses. I went up to Yorkville [in the mid-1960s] to see some band and it had Neil Young in it. And I said: ‘I guarantee you, there's a band that won't even get to record, let alone put a record out!' I'd never heard anyone sing that bad. [Hawkins does a screechy impression] 'Meyeh, waaay up in Ont-ar-ee-o.' God almighty. Next time I saw him he'd sold a billion records. And I've heard it so much now that I don't mind it. But back then I'd have bet everything I owned that they'd have thrown him out of any record shop he went into. They weren't in tune, and he was singing that weird shit up there, weird like not falsetta [sic], but something else. But, he did OK for a country boy, didn't he? Hell, it doesn't matter anyway because he's a Canadian, boy, and we gotta be proud of him.
Word is that the people expected to attend your Toronto show include Yoko Ono, Bill Clinton, and [mega-selling music producer] David Foster. Was Foster ever a Hawk?
Yeeeeeah. He was my bus driver! I hired him as my bus driver. But I let him play piano a little bit, too, just 'cause he was such a good bus driver. He was making $250 million a year back there for a little while. But I told him, if it ever falls through out there [in Los Angeles], he can always come back and drive my bus.
What about Bill Clinton? You're both Arkansas boys, but he's gotta be a decade younger than you. How do you know him?
We played his 65th birthday. In California. Everybody was there. Man, every movie star in the world was there. I shook the hand of an old boy, and he looked just as common as a horse turd at a rodeo, you know? Like me and you. And he gave Bill Clinton $200 million cash for his library. One guy. And he didn't look like one of 'em entrepreneurs, one of them cheaters from Bay Street, or all them stock brokers that's cheating everybody. But he had money from somewhere, $200 million! [Ed. note: This may be an exaggerated amount.]
Anyway, Clinton used to come in the club a lot [when I played in Arkansas]. I used to play for the billionaires down there. Sam Walton, Don Tyson. Billionaires. Well, I found this out over the years, but politicians and preachers sure like to hang around with rich people. Did you ever notice that?
Well, he and Hilary both was teaching law at the University of Arkansas and that's when I first met him at a party. And they wanted him to get into politics, he was so sharp. And then he went through everything, became the Attorney General. And then he became Governor. And that's when he used to come into the clubs, when I played down there.
Anyway, I was setting at a table, and this was when he was getting them complaints about girls saying he was mo-lesting them or some damn thing. And tell you something about Bill, he's a lady killer. I don't know why. I don't know what makes a lady killer in people. But the women make fools of themselves around [him] trying to get in his britches. It's unbelievable. I was setting at this table with seven or eight girls out on a break at the club when he come in, and all of these are college girls, some of 'em married, and they looked over there and said [whispers] "oh my God, there's the Governor! There's the Governor!”
Ooh, and they started talking about things, things they wanted to do to him. I'm telling you. Caligula woulda been ashamed of the kind of stuff they wanted to do to him, boys. I don't know what happens. They start twitching down there or something, and just make fools of themselves when they get around [Clinton]. I'm pissed off 'cause they won't do that around me!
Just before we got started you were showing us John Lennon's one-hitter that he left at your place back in the early 70s.
RH: He left everything! But I've given everything away to Beatles fans. I've given millions of dollars worth of stuff away. The clothes, the lithographs he left, all kinds of stuff. All the dope paraphernalia, everything. Clothes! Shoes! Hats! My daughter wore Yoko's hat for a couple years, and then sold it for big money.
I've given so much away to Beatles fanatics. I never was a Beatles fanatic –- I think they're great -- but there's people that, I mean fanatics! They'll die! I had a suitcase full of dope paraphernalia. All Lennon's. Plus, they had -- did you ever hear of “temple balls?” Well, “temple balls” is supposed to be from them monks, in these temples, they make this hash. And it’s the best hash in the world. Call ‘em “temple balls.” And they had some of that. Everything. But that's John. I mean, they were big time, boy. Big. Time.
I've given, probably, $3 or $400,000 worth of lithographs away. Only down to one, now.
Lennon was drawing a lot of erotic art around then, right? In the early 70s?
Well, yeah, it is kind of erotic; I guess you could call it that. It shows him nekid, and he drew Yoko nekid, and her big ol’ pussy showing right there in the front. So, you know. I guess you'd call that erotica. It would scare some people!
[Laughing] Well, that's about as good a place as any to end an interview!
Well, thanks. Hey, now, give me a good write-up, boy, so I might get me some pussy. Some strange pussy.
I'm 80 years old! If I get some pussy, it'll sure be strange.
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