Imagine a homeless street musician with a soulful singing voice that earns him comparisons to R&B great Sam Cooke and, as it turns out, he also writes songs that are lauded alongside those of Kris Kristofferson, Curtis Mayfield and Tom Waits.
It would sound like a Hollywood B-movie—if it hadn’t turned out to be true.
This is the story of Venice boardwalk entertainer Ted Hawkins, who a few decades ago spent years busking for change in anonymity, strumming a guitar while seated on a milk crate. Then, he was discovered to be a first-rate singer and songwriter who wowed musicians and fans across the country and eventually released several critically acclaimed albums.
The extraordinary tale of Hawkins’ life, and his music, is at the heart of “Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins,” a tribute album with new recordings of 15 of Hawkins’ songs sung by Americana, country and indie rock musicians including James McMurtry, Mary Gauthier, Kasey and Bill Chambers, Tim Easton and others, plus one track sung by Hawkins’ widow, Elizabeth, and her daughter, Tina.
The album also includes a bonus track, an a cappella performance by Hawkins himself, “Peace and Happiness Great New Year.”
“I love that guy’s voice,” said Gauthier, herself an acclaimed singer-songwriter, from her home in Nashville. “It’s so believable, so soulful in every meaning of the word. His voice connected to his heart, his heart was in his songs, and it was working on every level. I was thrilled they let me record one of my favorite songs of his, ‘Sorry You’re Sick.’”
It’s a nuanced one-sided conversation from one friend to another who is ailing, but not from a cold or the flu. Gauthier, who struggled for years with addiction before finding her voice as a singer and songwriter, recognized the scenario when she heard it on one of Hawkins’ albums.
“There is nothing to me as heartbreaking or compelling as one addict’s compassion for another who is dying of addiction,” Gauthier said of the song, whose chorus asks, “What do you want from the liquor store/something sour or something sweet?/I’ll buy you all that your belly can hold/You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.”
“Everything about being an alcoholic is about being self-centered,” Gauthier said. “In this song, he defies that stereotype, which is a stereotype based in truth. A drunk or a junkie always looking out for himself, and yet in this song he offers his lover deep compassion. It’s pretty clear they’re both sinking in the mire….But he’s doing the best he can do. There’s love in there, and that love breaks your heart.”
Hawkins, who was born in Biloxi, Miss., and died in 1995 at age 58, was discovered and rediscovered any number of times since making his mark in the mid-1960s with a minor hit, “Baby,” which is sung on the new album by Elizabeth and Tina Hawkins.
“When we were children, just babies, dad would take us out on the front porch, and write up nursery rhymes of his own,” said Tina, who now lives near her mother in Austin, Texas, since both left Los Angeles several years ago. “He’d line us up, give us all our parts, and we’d be out on the porch, neighbors would be walking by, and we’d be singing our beautiful little nursery rhymes. He would play his guitar, and that’s where it literally started for me. I’ve always been drawn to music…..spiritually, that has brought me through a lot of issues in my life.”
Musician Bruce Bromberg was impressed by Hawkins’ talent, and recorded several tracks with him in the 1970s, which weren’t released until 1982 as the album “Watch Your Step,” in part because Hawkins’ heroin addiction kept him in and out of jail, and in and out of shape to work.
In the early '90s, another musician---L.A. singer-songwriter Michael Penn--was staying in Venice and heard a voice from the boardwalk below that grabbed his attention. He went to bat for Hawkins, and landed him a deal with Geffen Records, which released the album “The Next Hundred Years,” in 1994, which won Hawkins more critical raves.
Jenni Finlay and Brian Atkinson, organizers of the new tribute album, encountered a similar response from musicians they approached to participate.
“Everybody kind of jumped at the chance,” said Finlay, who said her cursory awareness of Hawkins and his music blossomed during a road trip with a friend who played Hawkins’ original albums nonstop on their journey from Austin, Texas, to Kansas City, Mo., and back again.
As for deciding which musician would sing which song, Finlay said there was a bit of arm wrestling, but, “A lot of it was an easy call.”
The toughest choice, she said, was “Sorry You’re Sick,” of which she said “That’s sort of Ted’s ‘Free Bird.’ We didn’t want to give that to just anybody. I held that back, and then approached Mary with it. I didn’t know how she would feel about it, because she had struggled with addiction herself. But she said, ‘Yeah, that’s the one I want to do.’ I really wanted someone who could put their own soul and their own story into that particular song.”
Gauthier said her connection with the song “was undeniable. I wish I would have seen him perform. Listening to the songs, there’s a timelessness to it that transcends the man. A great song transcends the writer. He understood human nature and could convey that in a simple way. That’s what our job is as writers. Everyone can understand the way we are as human beings. But it helps to have a voice like his.”