Ronnie Hawkins, who combined the gregarious stage presence of a natural showman and a commitment to turbocharged rockabilly music in a rowdy career that spanned more than a half-century, died on Sunday. He was 87.
His wife, Wanda, confirmed his death to The Canadian Press. She did not specify where he died or the cause, though she said he had been ill for some time.
Mr. Hawkins started performing in his native Arkansas in the late 1950s and became a legendary roadhouse entertainer based in Canada in the 1960s, his music forever rooted in the primal rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
For all of his success, his biggest claim to fame was not the music he produced but the musicians he attracted and mentored. His backup musicians of the early 1960s, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, went on to form the Band, which backed Bob Dylan and became one of the most admired and influential bands in rock history.
But those musicians, like many of Mr. Hawkins’s fans, never lost their reverence for the man known as the Hawk.
“Ronnie’s whole style,” Mr. Robertson once said, was for he and his band to play “faster and more violent and explosive than anyone had ever heard before.”
Ronald Cornett Hawkins was born on Jan. 10, 1935, two days after Elvis Presley, in Huntsville, Ark. When he was 9, his family moved to nearby Fayetteville, where his father, Jasper, opened a barbershop and his mother, Flora, taught school. His musical education began at the barbershop where a shoeshine boy named Buddy Hayes had a blues band that rehearsed with a piano player named Little Joe.
It was there that he began to imbibe the crazy quilt music of the South, with blues and jazz filtered through snatches of country and the minstrel and medicine shows that traveled through town. Before long, something new was added, the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, which was percolating out of Sam Phillips’s Sun Records studio in Memphis.
Mr. Hawkins brought to all that an element of danger — as a teenager, he had driven a souped-up Model A Ford running bootleg whiskey from Missouri to the dry counties of Oklahoma, making as much as $300 a day.
He put together bands, enrolled in and dropped out of the University of Arkansas, joined the Army in 1957 and then quit the same year, intent on making it in the music business. While in the Army, he fronted a rock ‘n’ roll band, the Black Hawks, made up of African American musicians, a daring and usually welcome effort in the segregated South.
Demos he recorded at Sun after he left the Army fell flat, but he and the guitarist on his Sun session, Luke Paulman, put together a band with Mr. Hawkins as the athletic frontman given to backflips and handstands. Over the years, his trademark became the camel walk, an early version of what became Michael Jackson’s moonwalk decades later.
In 1958, the country music singer Conway Twitty said American rock ‘n’ roll bands could make a killing in Canada. Heeding that advice, Mr. Hawkins moved to a place he once said was “as cold as an accountant’s heart.” Toronto and other places in Ontario turned into his home base for the rest of his career.
Mr. Hawkins in the 1970s. While he was known for performing in roadhouses, he also appeared in movies, including the disastrous 1980 western “Heaven’s Gate.”Credit…Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Mr. Hawkins liked to talk, perhaps with some embellishment, about regular parties, brawling, sex and drinking that, as he put it, “Nero would have been ashamed of.” But there was nothing glamorous about being a rock ‘n’ roll musician playing nonstop in bars and roadhouses on a circuit centered on Ontario, Quebec and U.S. cities like Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland.
“When I started playing rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, “you were two pay grades below a prisoner of war.”
He built up a loyal following based on his magnetic stage presence, the proficiency of his bands and the raw energy of his music. He had modest hits with “Forty Days,” his revised version of Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days,” and “Mary Lou,” a Top 30 hit on the U.S. charts.
Later successful recordings include “Who Do You Love?” and “Hey Bo Diddley.”
Morris Levy of Mr. Hawkins’s label, Roulette Records, billed him as someone who “moved better than Elvis, he looked better than Elvis and he sang better than Elvis.” He saw a vacuum he thought Mr. Hawkins could fill as the original rockabilly artists slowed down or flamed out. But Mr. Hawkins was not so sure, as he watched clean-cut teen idols like Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell take over from their more rough-hewed progenitors.
To Mr. Levy’s chagrin, Mr. Hawkins opted to own the road in Canada rather than to swing for the fences as a recording star in the U.S., building up a remunerative career working nonstop, even though he never built an epic recording career. He also became known as a one-of-a-kind character and raconteur.
“The Hawk had been to college and could quote Shakespeare when he was in the mood,” Mr. Helm wrote in his autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire.” “He was also the most vulgar and outrageous rockabilly character I’ve ever met in my life. He’d say and do anything to shock you.”
Mr. Hawkins was more than just the consummate rockabilly road warrior. In 1969, he hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono at his ranch outside Toronto during their world tour to promote world peace as the Plastic Ono Band. Bob Dylan was a longtime fan who in 1975 cast Mr. Hawkins to play the role of “Bob Dylan” in his experimental and largely panned movie “Renaldo and Clara.”
Mr. Hawkins in an undated photo. He started performing in his native Arkansas in the late 1950s before settling in Canada in the 1960s.Credit…Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer
He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film “The Last Waltz,” as one of the invited stars who joined the Band in the final performance of the original group at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. (The Band later reunited without Mr. Robertson.)
Mr. Hawkins growled and hollered his way through a memorable performance of “Who Do You Love” with the Band, good-naturedly fanning Mr. Robertson’s guitar with his cowboy hat as if cooling it off after a particularly torrid solo.
And he became a friend of his fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton when he was governor, as well as a conspicuous part of the Arkansas entourage during President Clinton’s Inaugural in 1992. Mr. Clinton also paid tribute to Mr. Hawkins in a 2004 documentary entitled “Ronnie Hawkins ’Still Alive and Kickin.’’
Mr. Hawkins did other acting, including a supporting role in Michael Cimino’s disastrous 1980 western “Heaven’s Gate,” and he morphed into a respected elder statesman of Canadian music. He invested wisely, lived like a country squire in a sprawling lakefront estate and owned several businesses.
Still, he was a master of honing his bad-boy image and playing to type, including in his 1989 autobiography, “Last of the Good Ol’ Boys.”
“Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars,” he said. “I guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.”
Besides his wife, survivors include his three children, Ronnie Jr., Robyn and Leah, and four grandchildren.