Ronnie Hawkins: Rock legend on both sides of border

Ronnie Hawkins: Rock legend on both sides of border
LIVELY: Ronnie Hawkins was born in Arkansas but moved to Canada in 1958 (R.A. Andreas)
If you are a fan of Bob Dylan and the Band, you might have heard the name Ronnie Hawkins quite a bit over the years, though you probably haven't heard much of his actual music -- the Canadian-based rocker has had little sales chart presence in this country.

Thanks to a new retrospective CD from Collectors' Choice Music, however, we get to sample Hawkins' key recordings from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and they prove to be as tenacious and colorful as what we've heard all these years from Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and the other members of the Band.

How wild was Hawkins in the early days of rock?

Sonny Burgess, who recorded for the legendary Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., in the 1950s, puts Hawkins right alongside Sun label mates Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on a list of the three performers who "would really knock you out" on stage. Of Hawkins, he added, "He would do all kinds of crazy stuff. If there was a wall at the side of the stage, he'd run up it and turn a back flip off it, still holding the mike if the cord was long enough."

Aside from his frantic live shows, Hawkins also has become something of a rock institution in Canada because of his reputation for finding great young talent.

The five members of the Band came together in Hawkins' backup group, the Hawks, before being picked up by Bob Dylan in 1965 for his celebrated electric rock tour.

The musicians -- Robertson, Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson -- then worked with Dylan in 1967 on the extraordinary "Basement Tapes" recordings before the quintet branched out on its own as the Band and made some of the most distinguished albums ever, including "Music From Big Pink."

The 23 selections on the new CD -- many of them featuring one or more future members of the Band -- cover an unusually wide range of styles, giving us the sense of an ambitious young man trying his hand at everything in hopes of building a better show.

The material includes old Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry songs, some Hank Williams country, the Gershwins' "Summertime" and even a bizarre, folk-protest song urging that California death row inmate Caryl Chessman's life be spared.

Ronnie Hawkins

"Mojo Man/Arkansas Rockpile"

Collectors' Choice Music

The back story: Hawkins was born in Arkansas on Jan. 10, 1935, two days after Elvis Presley's birth in nearby Mississippi. But he moved to Canada in 1958 after hearing from fellow Arkansas rocker turned country star Conway Twitty that Canada was starved for American rock 'n' rollers.

And sure enough, Hawkins was an immediate hit in Canada, where he still lives.

The new CD includes two Roulette albums, "Mojo Man" and "Arkansas Rockpile," that featured tracks recorded by Hawkins from 1959 to 1963.

While Gene Sculatti's liner notes point out some of the musicians who played on a few key tracks, it's a shame that the package doesn't include such basic information as songwriters and musicians. Fortunately, the session information is available on various Hawkins-related websites.

What the CD does give us is a winning look at the innocence, excitement and go-for-broke spirit that characterized rock's first decade. Despite Hawkins' lack of impact in the U.S., the collection makes a strong case for ranking him in the top tier of 1950s rock 'n' roll.

The Band was so fond of Hawkins that the group invited him to join such other "friends" as Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and Neil Young at the Band's 1976 farewell concert, "The Last Waltz." Pretty nice company.

Backtracking is a biweekly featured devoted to CD reissues and other historical pop items.