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Ronnie Hawkins 5/22

Born in Huntsville, Arkansas  on January 10, 1935 Ronnie Hawkins made quite the career for himself in Canada (where he became a permanent resident in 1964). A road warrior, he made his rounds across North America and launched the careers of many musicians, including the Band (who backed him as the Hawks from 1961 to 1964), Roy Buchanan, Pat Travers and others.

Musicianship ran in Hawkins’s family; Hawkins’s father, uncles, and cousins had toured the honky-tonk circuit in Arkansas and Oklahoma in the 1930s and 1940s. His uncle Delmar “Skipper” Hawkins, a road musician, had moved to California about 1940 and joined cowboy singing star Roy Rogers’s band, the Sons of the Pioneers. Hawkins’s cousin Delmar Allen “Dale” Hawkins, the earliest white performer to sing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Regal Theater in Chicago, recorded the rhythm and blues song “Suzie Q” in 1957. Beginning at age eleven, Ronnie Hawkins sang at local fairs and before he was a teenager shared a stage with Hank Williams. He recalled that Williams was too drunk to perform, and his band, the Drifting Cowboys invited members of the audience to get on the stage and sing. Hawkins accepted the invitation and sang some Burl Ives songs he knew.

As a teenager Hawkins ran bootleg liquor from Missouri to the dry counties of Oklahoma in his modified Model A Ford, sometimes making three hundred dollars a day. He claimed in later years that he continued the activity until he was nineteen or twenty, and that it was how he made the money to buy into nightclubs. He had already formed his first band, the Hawks, when he graduated from high school in 1952, following which he studied physical education at the University of Arkansas, where in 1956 he dropped out just a few credits short of graduation.

Hawkins then enlisted in the United States Army, but he was required to serve only six months, having already completed ROTC training. Soon after his arrival at Fort Sill in Oklahoma for Army Basic Combat Training, he was having a drink at the Amvets club when an African American quartet began to play their music. Hearing the first notes so stirred him that he jumped onto the stage and started singing. “It sounded like something between the blues and rockabilly… me being a hayseed and those guys playing a lot funkier.” The experience caused Hawkins to realize what kind of music he really wanted to play, and he joined the four black musicians, who renamed themselves the Blackhawks.

The group had been performing a sort of jazz/blues something like Cab Calloway’s music of the 1940s, and Hawkins sought to introduce contemporary influences to their repertoire. With another new member, blues saxophonist A.C. Reed, they created some of the South’s most dynamic music sounds. “Instead of doing a kind of rockabilly that was closer to country music, I was doing rockabilly that was closer to soul music, which was exactly what I liked.” The band encountered prejudice, as many white people in the American South of the 1950s could not accept an integrated band and considered rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues the devil’s music.

The Blackhawks disbanded when his enlistment ended. Hawkins went back to Fayetteville, and two days later he got a call from Sun Records, who wanted him to front the house session band. By the time he got to Memphis, though, the group had already broken up. Nevertheless, he took advantage of the opportunity to cut two demos, Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and Hank Williams’s “A Mansion on the Hill”, but the recordings attracted no attention. The demo session guitarist, Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman, suggested that Hawkins join him at his home in Helena, Arkansas, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta region, a hotbed of blues, rhythm and blues, and country music, an offer which he eagerly accepted.

Immediately upon arriving in Helena, Hawkins and Paulman found Paulman’s brother George (standup bass) and their cousin Willard “Pop” Jones (piano) and formed a band they named The Hawks. Drummer Levon Helm, who had grown up in nearby Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, first played with the group at the Delta Supper Club in early 1957 when George Paulman invited him to sit in with them for their closing set. Helm reminisced years later how Hawkins, accompanied by Luke Paulman, drove his Model A out to the Helm’s cotton farm, arriving in a cloud of dust to talk to Helm’s parents. Helm remembered him as “a big ol’ boy in tight pants, sharp shoes and a pompadour hanging down his forehead.” Helm listened to Hawkins negotiate an agreement with his parents, who insisted that he graduate high school before he could join the Hawks and go to Canada. Helm practiced diligently on a makeshift drum kit to improve his skills, and when he graduated in May, he was good enough to play drum in the band.

Hawkins’s live act included back flips and a “camel walk” that preceded Michael Jackson’s similar moonwalk by three decades. His stage persona gained him the monikers “Rompin’ Ronnie” and “Mr. Dynamo”. Hawkins also owned and operated the Rockwood Club in Fayetteville, where some of rock and roll’s earliest pioneers came to play, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty.

With Helm’s graduation from high school, he joined The Hawks and they went to Canada, where the group met success. On April 13, 1959, they auditioned for Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records in New York. Only four hours later, they entered the studio and recorded their first record tracks. Their first single, “Forty Days”, was a barely disguised knockoff of Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” with the song “Mary Lou” by Young Jessie on the B-side; it reached number 26 on the US pop charts, becoming Hawkins’s biggest hit.

After spending nearly three months in Canada, the band returned to the South, with their base in Hawkin’s home town of Fayetteville. The band’s gigs in the southern states were mostly one-nighters or short run performances in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Helm loved to drive, and would drive the band two or three hundred miles to the next show in Hawkin’s old Chevy, which Hawkins eventually replaced with a Cadillac towing a trailer containing their equipment.

Hawkins and the group had begun touring Canada in 1958 as the Ron Hawkins Quartet on the recommendation of Conway Twitty, who told him Canadian audiences wanted to hear rockabilly. Their bassist George Paulman was abusing liquor and pills, so Hawkins left him behind, and they played without a bass on their first tour of Ontario. Their first gig was at the Golden Rail Tavern in Hamilton, Ontario, where, according to booking agent Harold Kudlets, all the bartenders quit when they heard the band’s sound and saw Hawkins’s stunts on stage. In 1959 he performed a number of live shows in the country and signed a five-year contract with Roulette Records. Working out of Toronto, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks cut the LP Ronnie Hawkins in 1959, and with Fred Carter, Jr. taking Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman’s place on lead guitar, they cut another LP, Mr. Dynamo, the next year, both of them recorded on the Roulette label.

He subsequently moved to Canada and in 1964 became a permanent resident. In 2017, he moved from Stoney Lake Manor in Douro-Dummer, where he had resided since 1970, to Peterborough, Ontario. Hawkins was an institution of the Ontario music scene for over 40 years. When he first came to Ontario he played gigs at places like the Grange Tavern in Hamilton, where Conway Twitty got his start, and made it his home base. In Toronto, where the Hawks dominated the local scene, Hawkins opened his own night club, the Hawk’s Nest, on the second floor of the Coq d’or Tavern on Yonge street, playing there for months at a time.

After the move to Canada, The Hawks, with the exception of Hawkins and drummer Levon Helm, dropped out of the band. Their vacancies were filled by Southwest Ontarians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. Young David Clayton-Thomas, a Canadian and future lead vocalist of the American group Blood, Sweat, and Tears, said he heard the Hawks when he got out of prison in 1962: “We young musicians would sit there by the bar at the Le Coq d’Or and just hang on every note.” This version of the Hawks, wearing mohair suits and razor-cut hair, were the top group among those who played the Le Coq d’Or, a rowdy establishment at the center of the action on the Yonge Street strip in Toronto. They were able to stay out of most of the bar fights that broke out there almost every night.

Along with Helm, they all left Hawkins in 1964 to form a group which came to be named The Band. They went to work for Bob Dylan in 1965, touring with him for a year, and were his backup band on The Basement Tapes. Hawkins continued to perform and record, and did a few tours in Europe.

In December 1969, Hawkins hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono for a stay at his home in Mississauga, Ontario, during the couple’s campaign to promote world peace. Lennon signed his erotic “Bag One” lithographs during his stay there. Lennon also did a radio promo for a Hawkins single, a version of The Clovers song,”Down in the Alley”. When their visit ended, Lennon and Ono, with Hawkins and his wife Wanda as part of their entourage, took the CNR Rapido train to Montreal, where they engaged in their Bed-in for Peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Hawkins later rode with them on a train to Ottawa to see then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Lennon also enlisted Hawkins as a peace ambassador, and Hawkins traveled to the border of China and Hong Kong with journalist Ritchie Yorke bearing an anti-war message.

In the early 1970s, Hawkins noticed guitarist Pat Travers performing in Ontario nightclubs and was so impressed by the young musician that he invited him to play in his band. Travers joined the group, but balked when Hawkins told him he wanted him to play “old ’50s and ’60s rockabilly tunes”. Years later, Travers told an interviewer, “… he wanted me to play them exactly the same, same sound, same picking, same everything. For a 19-, 20-year-old kid, that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. But he said, ‘You can do this, son, and you’ll be better than a hundred guitar players, because this is where it all comes from. You need to know this stuff. It’s like fundamental.’ And he was right”. Travers later had a successful recording career and became an influential guitarist in the 1970s hard rock genre.

In 1975, Bob Dylan cast Hawkins to play the role of “Bob Dylan” in the movie, Renaldo and Clara. The following year, he was a featured performer at the Band’s Thanksgiving Day farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, which was documented in the 1978 film The Last Waltz. Robbie Robertson said of it in 2020, “If there was anything wrong that night, it was that the cocaine wasn’t very good.” Hawkins sampled some of the powder and told the other performers that there was so much flour and sugar in it that they would be “sneezing biscuits” for three months afterward. Hawkin’s 1984 LP, Making It Again, garnered him a Juno Award as Canada’s best Country Male Vocalist. In addition to his career as a musician, he become an accomplished actor, hosting his own television show Honky Tonk in the early 1980s and appearing in such films as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate alongside his friend Kris Kristofferson, and in the action/adventure film Snake Eater. His version of the song “Mary Lou” was used in the 1989 slasher film, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II.

On January 10, 1995, Hawkins celebrated his 60th birthday by sponsoring a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, which was documented on the album Let It Rock. The concert featured performances by Hawkins, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Band and Larry Gowan. Canadian musician Jeff Healey sat in on guitar as well. Hawkins’s band, the Hawks, or permutations of it, backed the performers. All of the musicians performing that night were collectively dubbed “the Rock ‘n’ Roll Orchestra”.

In 2003, Hawkins was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and went into remission, which he attributed to everything from psychic healers to native herbal medicine. His remarkable remission was featured in the 2012 film Ronnie Hawkins: Still Alive and Kicking.

Hawkins died in the early morning of May 29, 2022, at the age of 87, after the cancer returned. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Wanda, their two sons, Ronnie Hawkins Jr. and country singer Robin Hawkins, who had served as his guitarist since the 1980s, and daughter Leah Hawkins, an aspiring songwriter who had been his backup singer.

A man with an extraordinary sense of humor, he is considered highly influential in the establishment and evolution of rock music in Canada. Also known as “Rompin’ Ronnie”, “Mr. Dynamo” or “The Hawk”, he was one of the key players in the 1960s rock scene in Toronto. He performed all across North America and recorded more than 25 albums. His hit songs include covers of Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” (retitled “Forty Days”) and Young Jessie’s “Mary Lou”, a song about a gold digger. Other well-known recordings are a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” (without the question mark), “Hey! Bo Diddley”, and “Susie Q”, which was written by his cousin, rockabilly artist Dale Hawkins.
Hawkins was a talent scout and mentor of the musicians he recruited for his band, The Hawks. Roy Buchanan was an early Hawks guitarist on the song “Who Do You Love”. The most successful of his students were those who left to form The Band. Robbie Lane and the Disciples made their name opening for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at the Yonge Street bars in Toronto and eventually became his backing band. Others he had recruited later formed Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band, Crowbar, Bearfoot, and Skylark.
Hawkins was still playing 150 engagements a year in his 60s.

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Gary Brooker 2/22

February 19, 2022 – Gary Brooker founding lead singer of the late 1960’s musical sensation Procol Harum was born on May 29, 1945, in London’s Metropolitan Borough of Hackney. His father was a professional musician and Gary followed in his footsteps learning to play piano, cornet and trombone as a child. But his most awesome instrument over the years became his voice.

After high school, he went on to Southend Municipal College to study zoology and botany but dropped out to become a professional musician.In 1962 he founded the Paramounts with his guitarist friend Robin Trower. The band gained respect within the burgeoning 1960s British R&B scene, which yielded the Beatles, the Animals, the Spencer Davis Group, the Rolling Stones, and many others. The Rolling Stones, in particular, were Paramounts fans, giving them guest billing on several shows in the early 1960s.

The group found little success with their studio recordings outside of a 1964 cover of “Poison Ivy” that became a minor hit in England. The Paramounts split in 1966, and while Brooker originally planned to retire from performing to work as a songwriter, he met lyricist Keith Reid and forged such a tight working relationship that the pair started a new group: Procol Harum. Guided by an immense musicality of Brooker, Fisher, Trower and Reid their worldhit “A Whiter Shade of Pale” became one of the anthems of 1967’s Summer of Love. “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” was inspired by Brooker’s love of classical musicians like Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. 

“About that time, the Jacques Louissier Trio — which had a pianist, bass player and drummer — made an album called Play Bach,” Brooker told Songwriter Universe in 2020. “They were a jazz trio, and they’d start off with a piece of Bach, and they would improvise around it. Louissier had done a fabulous version of what was called ‘Air On a G String’ which was also used in a set of good adverts in Britain. And all those things came together one morning [on ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’] … a bit of Bach and ‘Air On a G String’ going through my head.”

Once he added in Reid’s lyrics, Brooker had a masterpiece on his hands that would reach Number One all over the world and turn Procol Harum in a major band almost overnight. Although the band never managed to land another hit of that magnitude, they maintained a large cult audience and worked steadily throughout the Sixties and Seventies, scoring occasional hits like “Conquistador” and “A Salty Dog.” In 1972, they cut the live album Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra that helped bring the band back into the public eye.

While Procol Harum was often referred to as a progressive rock band, Brooker never felt comfortable with that label. “I’ve always rejected the idea of labeling groups or types of music,” he told Vintage Rock in 2019. “I don’t think Procol has ever fit into a particular pigeonhole, as we call them here, you know, in the filing cabinet. You don’t really know what to put them under. They come under ‘P’ — ‘Progressive?’ ‘Psychedelic?’ — and I say, ‘They come under ‘P’ and ‘P’ is for ‘Procol’.”

A Whiter Shade of Pale was issued as their debut record on 12 May 1967. and became one of the most commercially successful singles in history, having sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. In the years since, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has become an enduring classic, with more than 1000 known cover versions by other artists, none of them ever matching Brooker’s version. With its Bach-derived instrumental melody, soulful vocals, and unusual lyrics, the music of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was composed by Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher, while the lyrics were written by Keith Reid.

Brooker’s melancholic vocals and emotive, eclectic piano playing were a key part of Procol’s musical mix for the entire course of the band’s career. In the early years Brooker, Hammond organist Matthew Fisher and Trower were the guiding musical forces behind the band, but after disparities in style became too much and Fisher and Trower left, Brooker was the clear leader until the band broke up in 1977. Brooker started a solo career and released the album No More Fear of Flying in 1979.

Gifted with a voice that stood out in a massive crowd, it is interesting to realize that Gary Brooker became essential a journeyman, who occasionally came “home” to his roots.  After Procol Harum broke up, Brooker first launched his solo career but then began touring and recording with his longtime buddy Eric Clapton. His work can be heard on Clapton’s 1981 LP Another Ticket. Clapton fired the entire band in 1981, but he and Brooker remained good friends afterwards, and were for many years neighbours in the Surrey Hills. Brooker joined Clapton for several one-off benefit gigs over the years. Brooker sang lead vocal on the Alan Parsons Project song “Limelight”, on their 1985 album, Stereotomy. Brooker sang the lead vocal of the song “No News from the Western Frontier”, a single taken from the album Hi-Tec Heroes by the Dutch performer Ad Visser.

A new version of Procol Harum was assembled in 1991 that recorded and toured up until 2019, though they took a pause in 1997 and 1999 so Brooker could tour with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. He also toured as a member of Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings on three of their albums.

On 28 September 1996, as the Gary Brooker Ensemble, he organized a charity concert to raise funds for his local church, St Mary and All Saints, in Surrey. The resulting live CD of the concert, Within Our House, originally released on a fan club CD in a limited run of 1000 units, later became a collectable recording. His guests and supporting artists included Dave Bronze, Michael Bywater, Mark Brzezicki and Robbie McIntosh.

Also in 1996, Brooker appeared in the Alan Parker film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Evita starring Madonna, Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas. Playing the part of Juan Atilio Bramuglia, he sang the song “Rainbow Tour” with Peter Polycarpou and Antonio Banderas. Brooker said that his greatest single earning in his career was from his appearance in the film.

On 29 November 2002, he was among musicians and singers participating in the George Harrison tribute concert, Concert for George, at which he sang lead vocals on their version of “Old Brown Shoe”. Brooker contributed to Harrison’s albums All Things Must Pass, Somewhere in England and Gone Troppo.

In April 2005, as the Gary Brooker Ensemble, he played a sell-out charity concert at Guildford Cathedral in aid of the tsunami appeal, playing a mixture of Procol Harum and solo songs and arrangements of classical and spiritual songs. His guests and supporting artists included Andy Fairweather Low and Paul Jones (ex-Manfred Mann).

A new incarnation of Procol Harum, led by Brooker, continued touring the world, celebrating its 40th anniversary in July 2007 with two days of musical revels at St John’s, Smith Square in London.

On 28 October 2009, Brooker was presented with a BASCA in recognition of his unique contribution to music.

In May 2012, Procol Harum were forced to cancel the remainder of their dates in South Africa after Brooker fractured his skull following a fall in his hotel room in Cape Town. The fall came on Brooker’s 67th birthday. The band was part of the British Invasion Tour of South Africa along with the Moody Blues and 10cc. However, they continued touring until 2019, playing their final gig in Switzerland.

Shine on brightly, Gary, you made us quite insane, AND WE LOVED IT! RIP February 19, 2022