Romping Ronnie Hawkins used to be known as the Mayor of Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. A transplant from Arkansas, Hawkins had come up to Canada on a tip from Conway Twitty. No one did anything halfway as good as him up there, Twitty counseled. If Hawkins was willing to go, he’d immediately be the only thing going. And, for a time, he really was. With his succession of excellent backing bands as support, Hawkins established his brand of country-fried rock’n’roll as the real deal—he traded on authenticity, on a mythical southern charm, and on an attractive plantation-borne Otherness in the centre of urban English Canada. The Strip—a stretch of Yonge Street known for rough taverns peopled by beer-sloshed rounders, roustabouts, prostitutes, and the kind of bad apples who listened to American rock’n’roll in the early 1960s—became his stomping grounds. And to those young hipsters bored by the folk music that ruled bohemian Yorkville a few blocks uptown, Hawkins’s scene was positively electrifying.
Famously, of course, Hawkins quickly assembled what is arguably the single best rock ’n’ roll band in the history of the genre. His Hawks—a group of four Canucks backed by a killer drummer from Hawkins’s home state—would soon be backing Bob Dylan on his electric tours in ’65 and ’66, before going on to international recognition as the Band. The real shame about Hawkins, then, is that as good as he was, he’ll never be afforded the credit, interest, or admiration he might’ve garnered had his protégés not morphed into such a force of nature. As a colleague of mine pointed out, most folks listen to Hawkins’s records (if they even do) to check out Robbie Robertson’s early fretwork, Richard Manuel’s stab at honky tonk keys, or Levon Helm’s extraordinary marshal-esque snare. This is regrettable, but by no means hard to understand. Perhaps, with this new reissue of Hawkins’s best work, folks might look past the Band for the Hawk?
Cobbled together from a variety of sessions recorded with an array of bands in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (including some sessions with those most famous of his Hawks), these two records were first released in the late ‘60s by Roulette Records. Putting them together like this, on one disc, is helpful, since neither offers anything resembling a coherent album. (There are even two tracks on which the Hawk doesn’t even appear, to the best of my knowledge—both are sung by a young, and already commanding, Levon Helm.) And, as presented in this way, they become a de facto greatest hits package, a treasure trove of impressive sides by a master of the post-rockabilly era.
Making his mark on well-covered tracks by Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, and Dale Hawkins (Ronnie’s cousin), Rompin’ Ronnie proves here both his credentials as a rocker and his surprising skill at interpreting tender tear-in-my-beer ballads. From “Suzy Q” to “Summertime” to “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, the selections are likely to be familiar to many. But there is something new around every corner, and at every turn further proof of the Hawk’s terrific and sadly unrealized potential as a commercial recording artist in those years.
Strangely, while this collection does offer a brief essay on the material presented here, it neglects to tell us much of the important stuff. This may be because the information has been lost, but that might’ve been helpful info too, no? For example, who is playing on each of these tracks? We might be able to recognize Helm’s drumming, but then again, we might not. On most of these tracks, the sidemen are as mysterious as the dates of the recording sessions. Worse still, the CD has its track listing all wrong. While the first song you hear is “Matchbox”, the first song listed is “Mojo Man”. How does this happen?
If these weird problems had been addressed, this would, as reissues go, be an unqualified success. But, since so much of the allure of this material lies in the joy of experiencing the Hawks in their early days, the lack of helpful info on what’s what here is a major sticking point. However, if you are willing to close your eyes and just listen, guess, and enjoy, you will be happy. For this is, for anyone who has an interest in the Band—in Robertson’s stinging staccato guitar, in Helm’s relentlessly fierce cymbal work, or (most importantly) Hawkins’s criminally underrated vocal performances—the very definition of essential.