Ronnie Hawkins, the musical shepherd, charismatic showman, and mentor to The Band and others has died at 87. His wife Wanda confirmed that he passed away Sunday morning at a hospital in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, telling Toronto Star, “He went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever.” He had dealt with various health issues in recent years including pancreatic cancer.
Though known for his influence on the Canadian music scene, Hawkins was born in the states in Huntsville, Arkansas in 1935. He ran moonshine in high school before going on to attend University of Arkansas where he formed his first band, the Hawks. He toured with the band around Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, earning the monikers “Rompin’ Ronnie” and “Mr. Dynamo” with dynamic performances that included on-stage back flips and a “camel walk” that predated Michael Jackson‘s moonwalk by decades. Eventually, he opened the Rockwood Club in Fayetteville, AK, which hosted some of rock and roll’s early pioneers, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Conway Twitty, who encouraged Hawkins to tour in Canada.
After performing in Ontario and becoming an overnight success, Hawkins became a permanent resident of Canada, leaving the Hawks behind—with the exception of drummer Levon Helm, who followed along. The group’s other members were replaced by Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, who ultimately went on to form The Band with Levon Helm on drums.
The Band is just one example of Hawkins’s influence as a musical mentor. He was known for recruiting and helping young artists, inviting them to play in his band, and even going so far as to lend out his car with U.S. license plates to Canadian musicians so agents and club owners would hire them to play in the states.
“It was Christmastime and Ronnie said, ‘Well, you can’t be out of work for Christmas. Come on, work with my band,’” vocalist David Clayton-Thomas (Blood, Sweat & Tears) remembered on Sunday per the Toronto Star. “It ended up turning into like a two-month gig at Le Coq d’Or singing with Ronnie’s band—Levon, Garth and the boys.”
Hawkins also famously hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969, the year they staged their famous “bed-in” in Montreal. The couple stayed at Hawkins’s farm in Mississauga, Ontario for a couple weeks and later took Hawkins to meet with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. They also recruited Hawkins as a peace emissary and brought him with them to China.
“He took me and my band in like we were family,” actor and singer Kris Kristofferson said in 2002. “If there is a rock ‘n’ roll god, I know he looks just like this guy.”
Throughout his illustrious career, Hawkins wrote approximately 500 songs including “Ruby Baby” and “Mary Lou”. He had commercial success with a cover of Bo Diddley‘s “Who Do You Love” and received numerous accolades and awards, including a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Hawkins is survived by his wife Wanda and three grown children, Robbie, Leah and Ronnie Jr. His legacy lives on through the innumerable musicians he influenced and mentored.
Watch Ronnie Hawkins perform “Who Do You Love” with the Band in The Last Waltz concert film below.
The Band & Ronnie Hawkins – “Who Do You Love” (Bo Diddly) – The Last Waltz