When Ronnie Hawkins was 9, his family moved from Madison County, where he was born Jan. 10, 1935, to nearby Fayetteville.
“I was in St. Paul,” Hawkins recalled in a phone interview from his adopted Canada. “And then I went to the big city of Huntsville, and went to school there until the fourth grade, and we moved to Fayetteville. My daddy [Jasper] was a barber, so he moved where the barbershops were busy.”
His mother, Flora, was a teacher. The whole family played music.
By his late teens, Hawkins had turned alleged bootlegging profits into ownerships in Northwest Arkansas clubs. He majored in physical education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He formed his first band, the Hawks, and toured the tri-state region. He later joined the Army, attending basic training at Fort Chaffee and playing music throughout his military stint.
Hawkins joined with Arkansas guitarist Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman, who’d played in Harold Jenkins’ band. (Jenkins later changed his name to Conway Twitty.) Paulman’s cousin, Will “Pop” Jones of Marianna, played piano in the Hawks, and they brought in a Marvell High School student willing to play drums. They played the area until young Levon Helm graduated from Marvell High.
“If it rained, Levon couldn’t get in or out of where he lived [in Turkey Scratch]. If it looked like the weather was bad [we’d pick him up early]. He could only play on weekends, because he was still in high school,” Hawkins said.
More of a singer and entertainer than a player, Hawkins soon became known for molding great bands. The Hawks’ tight stage shows came from endless rehearsals, while the band opened for “hot country” acts like Sonny Burgess, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and many others.
Jenkins/Twitty had performed in Canada and told groups what a great deal it was for American rock bands up north. Hawkins and the Hawks tried Canada, loved it, and extended their circuit to include it.
Known for his acrobatic live shows, Hawkins showed off his flips on TV shows such as “American Bandstand,” where they dressed up the group like cowboys — but their wildness caused them to fail a “Steve Allen Show” audition.
The band signed to New York’s Roulette Records in 1959, where Hawkins and the Hawks were groomed and produced by Hot Springs native Henry Glover — author of hits such as “Peppermint Twist” and “Drown in My Own Tears.” Glover was “a hero beyond heroes,” Hawkins said. “We didn’t know he was from Arkansas or anything else.”
Hawkins’ “Forty Days,” a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” — which he also recorded — reached No. 45 on the Billboard charts. In 1959, “Mary Lou” hit No. 26. “I’ve always been stuck in that middle thing — too rock for country and too country for rock. That’s me,” he said.
At this time, Elvis Presley was in the Army, Jerry Lee Lewis was in scandal, Little Richard joined the church and Buddy Holly was dead. Some thought Hawkins had the looks and the moves to be the next big thing.
They were right. But Hawkins became a star in the heretofore uncharted rock ’n’ roll territory — “the promised land,” as he calls it — Canada.
Next week — part 2. Hear more about Ronnie Hawkins on this week’s “Arkansongs,” at 6:40 a.m. and 6:20 p.m. Fridays on KUAR-FM, 89.1. E-mail: skoch@arkansas.net.