POP MUSIC : Sidewalk Soul Pays Off : After years of hard times--and a few doing time--street performer Ted Hawkins scored a deal with Geffen Records. While awaiting his shot at success, he’s still working the Promenade with a guitar and milk crate
On a recent Saturday at Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, Ted Hawkins is perched on a milk crate outside a trendy boutique, singing Sam Cooke ballads as the Promenade’s affluent populace strolls by, staring curiously at him. Some stop to listen, transfixed by his anguished voice, while others hurry along to meet friends for brunch.
After Hawkins finishes a song, his small clump of listeners applauds, dropping coins and dollar bills into a big brass spittoon by his side. A young woman approaches him, full of effusive praise.
Hawkins leans forward, covering his mouth with his hand, as if sharing a secret.
“You know, I have a contract with Geffen Records,” he whispers. “I got an album coming out next year.”
The woman smiles politely, but as she hastily backs away, she looks a little spooked. It’s easy to imagine what she’s thinking: All these street singers really are nuts! Geffen Records puts out albums by Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, not by some crazy old man singing on the mall!
Hawkins, indeed, has been a little crazy over the years. But this time it’s the gospel truth--he is signed to Geffen Records.
Now 57, he has made his living as a street singer for nearly 30 years, calling himself the Unstoppable Ted Hawkins. But for the past few months, Hawkins has traveled by taxi from his Inglewood apartment to Geffen A&R; executive Tony Berg’s back-yard studio in Brentwood where Berg has been producing Hawkins’ album.
A tall, rawboned man with a graying beard and a gold front tooth, Hawkins is soft-spoken, polite and quick to smile. He often seems a bit tentative, like a man taking his first steps on dry land after weeks out on a stormy sea.
“Ted has never been in the loop--he doesn’t know the (pop world) jargon or attitude,” observes Berg, whose studio is adorned with rare guitars and old Vox amps. “We’ll record this totally crazy song, and Ted will say, ‘That’s the song that’s going to make me a star!’ ”
Wearing all black, from his T-shirt down to his jeans and boots, Hawkins is in the studio today working on an original song called “Green Eyed Girl.” As he sings, he strums his guitar with his thumb and index finger, which both have four-inch-long nails reinforced with acrylic.
Between takes, Hawkins tells stories about the two constants in his life--singing and hard times.
“I really learned about the power of music when I was in (Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman) as a young man,” he recalls. “We’d be hoeing a field when we’d hear the men on the work teams singing this one song: ‘Raise ‘Em Up High, Let ‘Em Drop on Down (You’d Never Know the Difference When the Sun Goes Down).’ ”
Hawkins rested his guitar on his knees. “After about an hour of that song, you’d see the angry old driver, up on his horse, guarding us. And even he had a smile on his face.”
Hawkins is smiling now too. “You’d be surprised what a good song can do. When I’m out singing on the Promenade and I really want to stop people, I sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ It always works.”
He glances at his producer, who’s hunched over the studio console. “It sure stopped Tony Berg.”
Before joining Geffen Records as an A&R; executive, Berg worked as a record producer, recording such artists as Public Image, Squeeze, Edie Brickell, X and Michael Penn. When Berg was making an album with Penn, the singer lived just off the 3rd Street Promenade. As Berg remembers it, one day Penn told him: “I heard the greatest singer in the world, and he was right outside my window.”
Several months later, Berg and Penn went to a homeless benefit at a local club. As they walked in the door, they heard a man singing “Amazing Grace.” Penn immediately tugged on Berg’s shoulder and said: “It’s the same guy.”
Hawkins was one of Berg’s first signings after he joined Geffen last year. The album, due in February, will feature cameos by such stellar sidemen as keyboardist Bill Payne, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Charlie Haden. But Berg says Hawkins’ voice, which has the grits ‘n’ gravy feel of R&B; crooners like Percy Sledge or Solomon Burke, is the star of the show.
“It’s full of so much strength,” Berg says, sounding slightly awe-struck. “It’s like a freight train.”
Hawkins has boxed the compass in Los Angeles. In the 1970s, you could find him outside markets in South-Central and the Downtown area. In the ‘80s, he was a fixture at Venice Beach. More recently, he has made the 3rd Street Promenade his base of operations.
Often hungry, sometimes homeless, in and out of prison, Hawkins has been discovered by deejays and producers several times in the past, only to have his opportunities quashed by run-ins with the law.
In the late 1960s, he cut a single for Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a small local label best known for ‘50s doo-wop records. In the early ‘70s, Hawkins recorded several songs with producer Bruce Bromberg. But before Bromberg could put the tracks together as an album, Hawkins was in jail.
In 1982, Bromberg finally made a deal with Rounder Records, which released most of the material on an album called “Watch Your Step.” The album sold about 10,000 copies and earned rave reviews in Rolling Stone and other publications.
As music journalist Peter Guralnick wrote at the time in the album’s liner notes: “There is a constant dialogue in Hawkins’ work between humor and sobriety, tenderness and perversity, anger and joy--his voice alternates between a Sam Cooke croon and a sudden explosion of raw anguish, often in the course of the same song.”
But Hawkins wasn’t around to enjoy the acclaim.
“When the album came out, Ted was in jail,” remembers Rounder Records producer Scott Billington. “In fact, the cover photo of Ted was taken when he was in prison. The photographer had to bring him a pink shirt so he wouldn’t be wearing his prison garb.”
According to criminal court records, Hawkins served 18 months of a three-year sentence on a child molestation charge at the California State Medical Facility at Vacaville. Hawkins steadfastly proclaimed his innocence but admits he had been arrested in the past on charges of indecent exposure. His record has been clean since his release from Vacaville in December, 1984.
Hawkins blames the arrests on a series of nervous breakdowns he says he suffered after being exploited by the now-defunct Dolphin’s, which he alleges put out his single but never paid him for it.
“I went crazy,” he says quietly, staring down at his big, unlined hands. “I tore all my clothes off and went running naked through the streets. I didn’t know what I was doing. I would be angry; I would cry uncontrollably. I almost committed suicide. I was all messed up.”
Hawkins says past publicity about his conviction made it impossible for him to get a record contract in England when he enjoyed a brief vogue there in the mid-'80s.
“I haven’t been in any trouble since, and I think I deserve to have a clean slate,” he says. “Everybody kicked my ass about it, and I want my ass to get well.”
Berg says he and fellow Geffen executives believe the singer has left his troubles behind him: “We discussed his history prior to signing him. We felt confident that Ted recognized the seriousness of his past conduct and has been rehabilitated.”
For now, Berg is focused on harnessing Hawkins’ creative powers.
“We’re trying to make a record that’s soulful in an era where soul is a missing commodity,” he says.
One day Berg brought Hawkins in to record a John Fogerty song, “Long as I Can See the Light.” Berg arrived late to the session, only to find that Hawkins had started without him.
“I remember the engineer looking at me and saying, ‘You better hear this,’ ” Berg recalls. “Ted had done the song, just his voice and his foot tapping, and the whole thing was in perfect pitch. It was so perfect that we overdubbed the rest of the instruments over his a cappella vocal.
“I just sat there, thinking, ‘We’re playing to a guy tapping his foot!’ ”
Hawkins’ raw, untutored vocal style and history of personal troubles often draw comparisons to the dark, mysterious travails of long-dead Delta blues men.
“When Ted lit into a song, it was like demons were after him,” Bromberg recalls of his sessions with Hawkins. “His songs were these great bizarre stories. And that carried over to his personality, which was always a little strange.
“But then, he’s had such a bizarre and awful life, how could he not be a little crazy?”
Hawkins never knew his father. His late mother spent most of her time drinking. The anger and confusion in Hawkins’ songs seem rooted in his childhood experiences.
“I’d come crying and want to be cuddled, but my mother would never cuddle me,” he says one day, sitting in the studio, idly strumming his guitar.
“She never could love me, and because I never got love, I can never give love. I just don’t have love inside me.”
He stares at the ground. “The only way I can show any love is by singing.”
When Hawkins went to school in Mississippi as a boy, he said, he smelled so bad that his classmates called him Dirty Junior.
“My hair was all matted up and I smelled,” he recalls. “The children were scared of me. My teacher told me to go home and get my mother to clean me up before I came back.”
Hawkins never returned to school after that.
“My mother wasn’t the type who’d take care of a child,” he says. “She was mostly interested in booze and prostitution.”
Hawkins says that as a child he was repeatedly molested by a neighborhood man and had no one to protect him.
When he was 12, he was sent to a reformatory near his hometown of Biloxi, Miss. The kids at school laughed at him, pointing at his legs, which were crooked from malnutrition. One day, one of Hawkins’ teachers asked her class what they wanted to be doing in 20 years.
“Some kids said they wanted to be doctors,” Hawkins recalls. “Others said they wanted to be lawyers. But I told her, ‘I want to be a great singer. I want to be the best.’ ”
One day, he met a famous visitor, the legendary New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, who taught him his first song, “Somebody’s Knocking at My Door.”
Not long afterward, Hawkins sang the song at a school assembly. “I was scared to death,” he remembers. “But when I sang, I tore the house down.”
Hawkins grins, showing his gold tooth. “I loved that feeling,” he says. “I wanted to keep that feeling forever.”
When Hawkins was 15, he and a friend stole some merchandise from a motorcycle shop. Convicted of the crime, he was put on a work gang, picking cotton at Parchman.
If the inmates didn’t pick cotton fast enough, they were beaten. Hawkins remembers the prison guards making bets about how long a whipping a prisoner could take before he would beg for the guard to stop.
“They had this guard (and) I wouldn’t holler, so he nearly beat me to death,” he explains. “The man beat me until my clothes stuck to my butt from all the blood scabs.”
Hawkins tells the story in a faraway voice, as if he were reliving a bad dream:
“I lay there, prepared to die. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. There wasn’t nobody hollering but him. All you could hear was him shouting, ‘You in the penitentiary, you hear that?’ ”
After he left Parchman, Hawkins spent the next 10 or 15 years on the road, hitching rides on trains up and down the East Coast. In the mid-'60s, he moved to Los Angeles, bought a Gibson guitar and started singing on the streets.
The singer has always had legions of admirers. But each time he seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, something went wrong.
“Everybody tried to do something with Ted,” Bromberg says. “He was involved with Motown for a minute. Harry Belafonte talked about doing a movie on his life. Joe South’s manager wanted to do a record with him. Ted’s been discovered hundreds of times. But it’s never worked out.”
Hawkins still has trouble hanging onto money. He’s already spent his $10,500 advance from Geffen, leading him to put a sign up in his apartment, saying: “Where did it all go?”
He now has a manager to help him handle his finances. But whenever times have been hard, Hawkins has returned to street singing. He is often at the 3rd Street Promenade by 10 a.m. and will sometimes stay until 6 p.m.
“When the other guys are just thinking about going out there,” he says, “I’m already there.”
Hawkins says he can make as much as $300 a weekend. In addition to his guitar, his equipment includes his brass spittoon for donations, a wooden board that he taps with his feet for a backbeat and the well-worn milk crate he sits on.
“If I forget my crate, I’m no good at all,” he says. “Once when I went to England, it got lost going through baggage and I didn’t know what to do. When they finally found it, I kissed it I was so happy.”
To care for his voice, Hawkins brings along a bottle filled with olive oil and a thermos of distilled water spiked with a spoonful of cayenne pepper.
“One day I was singing Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It on Home to Me,’ and my voice went out on me,” he says. “That’s when I quit smoking, just like that. You can’t smoke and be singing anything by Sam Cooke.”
Hawkins has a huge repertoire of songs, ranging from blues and gospel standards to honky-tonk favorites.
“When I sit down with my guitar, I’m there to develop a relationship between me and the people,” he explains. “There’s this blind guy who always comes by, after I’ve spent all day attracting people, and he says, ‘Give me that spot.’
“But he doesn’t realize it ain’t where you are, it’s what you do when you’re in the spot. I mesmerize people. When I’m going good, people would climb up to the top of a building if I was singing on the roof.”
Singing is what has kept Hawkins going, especially during the past few years, when it seemed as if he’d been forgotten.
“There was a time when I lost hope,” he says. “I wasn’t getting any younger. But I kept singing. I was dead, but I was too stubborn to lie down.”
Hawkins sits silently for a moment.
“You know, in England, when I’d go up onstage, they’d introduce me by saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Unstoppable Ted Hawkins.’ And I took that name as my own because it was true.”
He folds his hands together.
“Singing gives me a good feeling. If you’re feeling low or sad, you don’t have to kill yourself. You can start singing.”