December 2005

Ronnie Hawkins | I'm Back!
December 17, 2005 Massey Hall Toronto
The Hawk Soars High
by Joyce Corbett with photos by Roger Humbert
The crowd rose to their feet, clapping and cheering, as Arkansas-born Canadian icon Ronnie Hawkins walked onto the stage and took his seat, front and centre. Why is this man such a significant figure? If you didn’t already know, you would have gained an idea through the songs he sang and the stories he told during the evening. But almost everyone in this audience did know—as someone said—there was barely anyone under 50 there.

The Hawk reminisced about some of the great players he worked with: people like Art Brisco the steel slide guitar player, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Fred Carter Jr., Robbie Robertson (later of The Band), and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. With his characteristic sense of humour, he joked about the many great musicians who were here tonight, telling us that some of them had to get out of “homes” to be here. He talked about his Yonge Street club, The Hawk’s Nest, about playing Le Coq d’or, about Reggie Bavard, Toronto street poet and head honcho at the El Mocambo, hired when the Stones came to town to look after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. “Can you imagine?” he laughs, “what a job!”

He is proud to be here tonight with a whole new set of Hawks. “The drummer is only 18!” he exclaims. He is happy to tell us that they are all around the same age as the band he had when he first played Massey Hall in 1958. “We were the first rockabilly band to play Massey Hall” he says, and that was something. In those days Massey Hall was the home of the Toronto Symphony and pretty much a “high-brow” kind of place.

He asks the audience how they liked the opening act, the Checkmates and what about that Angela Scappatura? I didn’t get here in time to hear her, he says, but she’s hot, I’d hire her if she was a mute. That’s Ronnie—politically incorrect, bad-ass hillbilly and loving family man. He thanks his lovely wife (of 42 years) Wanda for being there and tells us about his children Ronnie Jr., Leah and Robin. He speaks openly of Ronnie Jr.’s schizophrenia and how lucky he is to have had him at home for all these years. Part of the proceeds of the concert are going to The Schizophrenia Society of Ontario.

Appropriately, he starts off with a rockabilly classic he performed in this very Hall in 1958 “Let Her Rock”. He sings a great version of the blues hit “Down in the Alley” next and follows it up with a song that he played for fellow Arkansas native Bill Clinton at his inauguration party, “Wild Little Willy”. (Ronnie has also played for every prime Minister since John Deifenbaker). He dedicates “Forty Days” to another Bill, Wild Bill the tobacco farmer “for being a great human being, never cheating or lying, just helping people” and he says hi to the family members in the Hall, three generations of them. He reminisces about times spent around Grand Bend, the days that “took us from the hills and the stills and put us on the pills, it was great — I think…” He dedicates another tune to his friend, the hockey player Brian Bennie who, he tells us, had three heart attacks and keeps coming back.

He tells a story about when he first came to Canada to play a club in Hamilton on the recommendation of country singer Conway Twitty who told him that Canada was the promised land for a rock ‘n’ roll singer. When they got to the club, (pause here for effect), for their Monday night gig, there were seven or eight people at the bar. But when Ronnie and his band started, they fled. The bar owner called the agent and yelled ‘get your hillbillies out of here, they’re chasing away my clientele!’ And yet somehow, they ended up with a steady gig at that club (The Grange), and Canada became Ronnie’s promised land.

He asks if his friend George is here, “where are you George? Stand up”. Boxer, Canadian Sports Hall of Famer and member of the Order of Canada (for his charity work and his anti-drug lectures) George Chuvalo, stands in the balcony. The audience rises to their feet, as they turn toward him and clap. Ronnie Hawkins dedicates the next tune to him. It’s “Mess Around”, one of the few tunes made famous by Ray Charles that Ray didn’t write himself. Ray, he tells, us was his idol, beating everyone hands down at the time George was in the ring “whipping everybody’s ass”. Thing is, he says, he never dared sing a Ray Charles song—it would be like entering the ring for a fight following George and Mohammed Ali. Ronnie tells the band, to "play the blues boys, play the blues." Well, they sure do, and from the expression on his face Ronnie is enjoying it as much as anyone: he doesn’t sing.

“Train I Ride” is dedicated to three of his doctors, one of whom, Dr. Hughes, performed his quadruple bypass and writes country songs as a hobby. He also acknowledges the Indian healers Ralph King and his mother Edna who are in attendance, and he makes allusions to his miraculous recovery from cancer a few years back.

Then he knocks off excellent renditions of Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” (“I’m an old country boy a long way from home…everything I do is wrong”) and “Honey Don’t”. “This is official rockabilly folks”, he says, "it’s the real thing". The crowd is really excited now and someone shouts out for “Blue Suede Shoes”. He turns to the band, that’s in G, isn’t it? What about it boys? And off they go with it.

Next comes one of his biggest hits, “Mary Lou” (you took my diamond ring, Mary Lou, you took my watch and chain, Mary Lou….). A big change of pace and feel comes with Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Old Man Comes Home from the Forest”. He sings it simply and honestly, from the heart. It’s sad and beautiful. He’s getting tired now, asking if he thanked everyone, did he forget someone? Did he do “The Shape I’m In”? Yes. O.K. He does “Lowdown”, another sad tune, this one about the misfortunes of a road-weary musician. It’s the song that won him his Juno. “Rode in on the Greyhound, I’ll be walking out if I go, I was just passing through about seven months ago”. The band does an instrumental, a huge hit from the early 50s with the steel slide sound. “Anyone here old enough to remember that one?”, he asks. The woman behind me’s got the title, “Sleepwalk”.

Massey Hall. “What a beautiful place to close a career”, he says. The next song he introduces as “often played at weddings and funerals” and written by Ronnie Thomson for the The Band, it’s “Days Gone By”. The lyrics, “sure like to be with these old friends of mine, sure love to be with them one more time…sure want to be among the ones who sing” makes this the most poignant moment of the evening.

The evening closes with a tune he’s been saving all night. It’s a tune that most Toronto residents know, from watching Ronnie Hawkins on New Year’s Eve for so many years at City Hall, if from nowhere else. He’s been performing it since 1952, always closing his shows with it, “Hey, Bo Diddley”. He gets full audience participation. Way to go Ronnie! Happy New Year!

We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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