Rock Road warrior Ronnie Hawkins dies at 87

Ronnie Hawkins, who combined the social stage presence of a born performer with a commitment to turbo rock during a tumultuous career spanning more than half a century, died Sunday. He is 87 years old.

His daughter Leah confirmed his death. She did not specify where or how he died, although she said he was very ill.

Mr. Hawkins began performing in his home state of Arkansas in the late 1950s and became a legendary Canadian road entertainer in the 1960s, his music forever rooted in the original rock beats of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.

Despite all his success, his greatest claim to fame is not the music he makes, but the musicians he attracts and directs. He went on to form a band with backup musicians Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko in the early 1960s, which supported Bob Dylan and became one of the most respected and influential bands in rock history .

But these musicians, like many fans of Mr Hawkins, have never lost their reverence for the man known as Hawke.

“Ronnie’s whole style,” Mr. Robertson once said, played with his band “faster, harder, more explosive than anyone has ever heard”.

Ronald Cornett Hawkins was born on January 10, 1935, two days after Elvis Presley in Huntsville, Arkansas. When he was 9, the family moved to nearby Fayetteville, where his father, Jasper, opened a barber shop and his mother, Flora, taught school. His musical education began in a barber shop, where a shoe-shine boy named Buddy Hayes had a blues band and rehearsed with a pianist named Joey.

It was there that he began absorbing the wild quilt music of the South, with blues and jazz filtering through clips in the country, and bards and medical shows spreading around town. It wasn’t long before something new was added, the beginnings of rock and roll, oozing from Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis.

Mr. Hawkins brought it all in peril—as a teenager, he drove a modified Ford Model A from Missouri to dry counties in Oklahoma, earning $300 a day.

He formed a band, enrolled and dropped out of the University of Arkansas, joined the military in 1957, and quit the same year to set his sights on the music industry. In the military, he led the Black Hawks, a rock group of African-American musicians, a bold and often welcome effort in the segregated South.

The demos he recorded at Sun after he left the army were mediocre, but he formed a band with Luke Paulman, guitarist at the Sun conference, and worked with Mr. Hawkins as the backflip and handstand athletic frontman. Over the years, his signature became the camel walk, an early version of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk decades later.

1958, country music singer Conway Tweety Saying that American rock bands can sell big in Canada. Following this advice, Mr Hawkins moved to a place he once said was “as cold as an accountant’s heart”. Toronto and the rest of Ontario became home bases for the rest of his career.

Mr Hawkins likes to talk about regular parties, bickering, sex and drinking, perhaps with a touch of embellishment, and in his words “Nero would be ashamed of it”. But there’s nothing glamorous about playing nonstop rock ‘n’ roll in bars and inns on a racetrack centered in Ontario, Quebec and U.S. cities like Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland.

“When I started rocking,” he said, “you were paid two notches less than a POW.”

He has built a loyal following with his captivating stage presence, the proficiency of his band and the raw energy of his music.His hit rate is moderate “Forty Days” His revisions to Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” and “Mary Lou” reached the top 30 in the US.

Later successful recordings included “Who Do You Love?” and “Hey, Beau Diddley.”

Morris Levy of Mr. Hawkins’s label Roulette Records called him “moves better than Elvis, he looks better than Elvis, and he sings better than Elvis”. He saw a vacuum that he thought Mr Hawkins could fill, as the original rock artist slowed down or stalled. But Mr Hawkins wasn’t so sure, as he saw clean-cut teen icons like Frankie Avalon, Fabien and Bobby Ryder succeed their more rowdy ancestors.

Much to Mr. Levi’s chagrin, Mr. Hawkins chose to own that path in Canada rather than rocking the US as a recording star, and while he never built an epic recording career, he built a non-stop work. A rewarding career. He is also known as a one-of-a-kind character and talker.

“Eagle went to college and could quote Shakespeare when he was in a good mood,” Mr. Hulme wrote in his autobiography. “The wheel was on fire.” Country rock character. He’ll say and do anything that shocks you.”

Mr. Hawkins isn’t just the consummate rock ‘n’ roll fighter. In 1969, he hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a ranch outside Toronto for a world tour as the Plastic Ono Band to promote world peace. Bob Dylan was a huge fan, and in 1975 he cast Mr Hawkins as “Bob Dylan” in his experimental film Reinaldo and Clara.

He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film “The Last Waltz,” as one of the invited stars for the original band’s final show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976. (The band later reunited without Mr. Robertson.)

Mr Hawkins roared into an unforgettable ‘Who Do You Love’ with the band, slapping Mr Robertson’s guitar graciously with his cowboy hat as if to cool off after the end a particularly enthusiastic solo.

During his tenure as governor, he became friends with fellow Arkansas Bill Clinton and was a key part of the Arkansas entourage during Clinton’s inauguration in 1992. Mr. Clinton also paid tribute to Mr. Hawkins in a 2004 documentary called “Hawkins.” “Ronnie Hawkins is alive and kicking.”

Mr. Hawkins, who had other performances, including a supporting role in Michael Cimino’s disastrous 1980 western “Heaven’s Gate,” became a respected Canadian music veteran. He invests wisely, lives like a squire on his sprawling lakeside estate and owns multiple businesses.

Still, he’s a master of bad-boy imagery and typing, including in his 1989 autobiography, The Last of the Good Boys.

“Ninety percent of what I do goes to women, whiskey, drugs and cars,” he said. “I think I just wasted another 10 percent.”

In addition to his daughter, Leah, survivors include his wife, Wanda, and two other children, Ronnie Jr. and Robin, and four grandchildren.

Livia Albeck-Ripka contributed reporting.