Ronnie Hawkins, rockabilly legend and mentor of The Band, dead at 87

Ronnie Hawkins circa 1970
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly singer whose backing band, The Hawks, went on to international fame as The Band, has died at the age of 87.

The news was confirmed by the singer's wife Wanda, who said that Hawkins had died Sunday morning after a long illness. "He went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever," she told news agency The Canadian Press in a phone interview.

Hawkins was born in Huntsville, Arkansas in 1935, and his family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, when he was a child. He began playing local bars as a teenager with his band, The Hawks, which included another local, drummer Levon Helm. He began touring Canada in 1958, and eventually became a permanent resident. 

Helm was the lone Hawk to join Hawkins in Canada, while the other members were replaced by Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. They'd  strike out on their own in late 1963, becoming The Band in 1967 when they backed Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes.  

Hawkins own success came a little earlier. His cover of Chuck Berry's 30 Days (entitled Forty Days) was a Top 10 Canadian hit in 1959, and other hits followed over the next decade, including versions of songs by Bo Diddley, Gordon Lightfoot, and The Clovers. He also continued to mentor other musicians, including John Till and Richard Bell, who would later join Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band, and guitarist Pat Travers, who went on to have a successful solo career.

In 1975, Hawkins played the role of "Bob Dylan" in Dylan's pseudo-documentary Renaldo and Clara. And the following year he was one of a cast of musicians to join The Band onstage at their farewell show, where he performed Bo Diddley's Who Do You Love?, a song he'd recorded in 1963 with The Hawks. The performance featured in Martin Scorsese's documentary of the show, The Last Waltz.

In 2002 Hawkins was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame, and two years later he was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame. He was also diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and given 90 days to live, a story told in the 2004 documentary Ronnie Hawkins: Still Alive and Kicking.

"I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to die in 90 days, I might as well go out like a rocket!’, he told The Huffington Post in 2013. "So we ordered whisky and booze and dope. Dope that Bob Dylan hadn’t even heard of. And we partied, boy. It woulda killed Charles Atlas, what we did. Never mind me that’s supposed to die! 

"But anyway, all of a sudden I got to feeling better. I took that last CAT Scan… it was completely gone. I don’t know how it happened. But I was one of the luckiest cats in the world, they said."

On his Facebook page, The Band's Robbie Robertson paid tribute to Hawkins.

"My heart sank when I heard “The Hawk” just flew into the sunset," he wrote. "The story of The Band began with Ronnie Hawkins. He was our mentor. He taught us the rules of the road."

Robertson goes on to tell the story of the pair's relationship, before a final tribute.

"He was not only a great artist, a tremendous performer and bandleader, but had a style of humour unequaled. Fall down funny and completely unique. Yep, God only made one of those. And he will live in our hearts forever."

Robertson's full post is below. 

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.