Ronnie Hawkins, simply known as “The Hawk” when he tore up the Yonge Street strip in the late ’50s, early ’60s, died May 29 at 87.
Remembered for his full-throated cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” the Arkansas-born singer-songwriter jammed with rock and roll’s earliest pioneers. They included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty.
Later, as a rockabilly sparkplug in the Toronto-Hamilton area, he mentored, among others, the original members of The Band, including Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson.
Hawkins (at the centre, left, with an early version of The Hawks) performed at The Band’s farewell concert and can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary, “The Last Waltz.” He became a permanent Canadian resident in 1964, was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2002. Later, in 2013, he was made an honorary Officer of the Order of Canada. He eventually moved with wife Wanda near Peterborough, Ont.
He revealed that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, but somehow managed to survive for close to 20 years. Hawkins joked that he and his friends drank and carried on after his deadly diagnosis and “scared the cancer away.”
Around that same time, back when I was at The Toronto Sun, I met Hawkins for an interview at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. A tall man who often sported a wide cowboy hat, The Hawk was in full flight, filling my tape recorder with yarn after yarn — some of which I was able to clean up enough to run in the newspaper.
He told me about the time he hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono in December of 1969. The famous couple, who had been to Canada a few months earlier for the “Live Peace in Toronto” concert, camped out at Hawkin’s Mississauga home while they were back in town campaigning for peace.
His guests stayed a week and even rode around on Hawkin’s snowmobile. While Lennon did record a radio promo for Hawkin’s single, “Down in the Alley,” the soon-to-be-ex-Beatle and his wife left without paying a nine thousand dollar long distance phone bill. “I’m still working off that visit!” said Hawkins.
In truth, he dined off it for years.
He eventually needed a cigarette break from our hotel interview and walked me out the front door. We’re standing on Front Street, and who should coming walking along but Don Harron, the late, great comedian famed for playing hayseed character Charlie Farquharson on Hee Haw. I remember thinking we were just William Shatner, Neil Young or Pierre Berton away from a Canadian stamp.
Hawkins greeted Harron like a long lost brother. He patted the actor on the tummy and told him it looked like he had been enjoying plenty of delicious home cooked meals from that pretty little lady of his.
Harron quietly informed Hawkins that he was freshly divorced from the lady in question. Hawkins quickly changed the subject and gushed all over again about how great Harron looked. Harron shook hands and proceeded along the street.
The second Harron was out of earshot, Hawkins leaned in and said, “I tell ya sumpin’, that little lady was hornier than a three-legged spider.”
That was one quote I never needed to record or write down. Rest in Peace Ronnie Hawkins.