Arkansas rockabilly legend, Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins, rocked Toronto's Massey Hall to its 110-year old rafters, Sat. Dec. 17, 2005. The Hawk's been a fixture on the rock 'n' roll scene in Canada, ever since he arrived here from Arkansas in 1959 with drummer Levon Helm ( then-called Levon & The Hawks), who later became The Band of Last Waltz fame.
Hawkins is known far and wide for his quick wit and sharp sense of humor. This night at Massey Hall was no different. The Hawk tossed several one-liners and a few barbs out to his many friends and fans in attendance. One of these longtime Hawkins friends since the '50s is boxing great George Chuvalo, who was rockin' to The Hawk from the first balcony, overlooking the stage.
Also in attendance was publicity 'King' Gino Empry. (Empry was Tony Bennett's manager for 12 years, and inspirational 'Guru' and talent booker to the one and only Peggy Lee). Empry booked Hawkins into the prestigious Imperial Room at Toronto's Royal York Hotel many times over the years, and like the rest of us, didn't miss a chance to see Hawkins in concert this night at Massey Hall.
Canadian character actor great Don Harron (aka Charlie Farquharson) was also in attendance, as were Ronnie's close friends 'Sir' Fred and his 'Lady' Ruth. (Fred has sold Hawkins a few great antique cars over the years). They and Chuvalo were some of the familiar faces this writer's seen and met at other Hawkins' concerts including Farm Aid at Toronto's ACC in January 2001 with Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman; as well as in Alliston, Ontario at a venue in March 2003.
At this 2003 Alliston venue, CTV television cameramen were filming footage for the Hawkins CTV documentary Still Alive & Kickin' made by award winning filmmaker Anne Pick. This comprehensive and engrossing bio of Hawkins' life that aired nationwide in August 2004, spans The Hawk's life in music with rare film footage, from his days on Yonge St. at the Hawks Nest in the late '50s, as well as his TV show days in the '60s. It also includes live concert footage of Ronnie's Dec. 5, 2002 Still Cruisin' CD release party in Hamilton, Ontario, and other more recent performances in Ottawa and Peterborough, Ont. This captivating documentary is now available on DVD from Anne Pick's Real to Reel Productions. Pick was also part of the audience enjoying this fine show at Massey Hall, December 17, 2005.
Hawkins has recently revamped his backup band The Hawks, and reinstated former Hawk members The Weber Brothers to back him. A few months earlier, he let his old band go, including slide guitar great Buzz 'Mr. Soul' Thompson; drummer Doug Inglis (Goddo/The McBrides) and blues harp player Jerome Godboo (Broken Joe/ex-Jimmy Bowskill Band/The Phantoms) -- three irreplaceable artists who were sadly missed on stage this night by this writer and others I talked to afterwards regarding this Hawkins concert. Guitarist Buzz Thompson was in attendance, sitting near the stage, and enjoying himself somewhat, from an audience perspective for the first time in 15 years. He was in Ronnie's band for 15 years until recently.
Several like this writer who know Thompson and his longtime involvement and loyalty as a Hawk, felt he should have been invited onstage to sit in with Ronnie part way through this concert. Unfortunately that didn't happen, but really should have.
Another talent sitting front row was singer Max Brand. Ronnie shared some funny jokes with Max this night, but unfortunately didn't invite him up to sing a song, like he did at Ronnie's CD release in Hamilton in Dec. 2002, when Max joined Ronnie on "Bo Diddley" - doing the splits, and the Russian Kossac dance. During this 2002 finale, Ronnie was making jokes like, "Look folks .. a black Russian!", and "This guy's on drugs!" That was the major highlight and finale of Ronnie's 2002 CD release, and was filmed by Anne Pick. That scene with Max and Ronnie, and R&B/soul vocalist George Olliver (Mandala) trying to 'outdo' Max on the splits, was featured in the August 2004 Ronnie Hawkins documentary Still Alive & Kickin' aired on CTV across Canada.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is featured in Still Alive & Kickin' as well. There was a pre-telecast party for this CTV documentary held a couple of nights before the telecast in Aug. 2004, at Toronto's Cadillac Lounge, where Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards showed up. This writer talked to Richards for about 10 minutes that night, about The Hawk. Music journalist Ritchie Yorke (Rolling Stone magazine) was also there, and told this writer he was at Hawkins' estate in Mississauga, Ont. in 1969, covering a story for Toronto’s Globe & Mail, of John Lennon and Yoko Ono staying there on a visit at the time. The John & Yoko visit is also in Pick's documentary, featuring home footage in color of Lennon riding around Hawkins' property in a snowmobile.
Massey Hall itself, brings back many happy Hawkins memories for this writer, including The Hawk's 60th Birthday Bash Let It Rock concert held at Massey Hall the day after Hawkins' actual birthday of Jan. 10th, on January 11, 1995. That night in '95, the crème de la crème celebrated Hawkins' birthday bash on stage. Rockabilly icons sharing the spotlight with Ronnie that night in '95, included Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, as well as Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Bell of The Band. Guitarists Buzz Thompson, Jeff Healey and Ronnie's guitarist/producer son Robin Hawkins, were also onstage performing that night with Perkins and Jerry Lee, as well as Hawkins' daughter Leah on background vocals.
Eric Clapton even showed up that January night in '95 in the audience, to pay homage to The Hawk and all his great music. (This writer met Clapton before the show started that night). Let It Rock was filmed for TV at the time, and is now available on video and DVD from Ronnie Hawkins' official website: http://www.ronniehawkins.com/
There was a tribute concert held in Ronnie Hawkins' honor at Massey Hall in Oct. 2002, when it was felt that Ronnie had only three months to live. That night some of the best came out to entertain Ronnie and his wife of 40 years, Wanda seated front row center. Some of these special individuals in music included singer Kris Kristofferson, Kelly Jay (Crowbar), Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band .. and Maud Hudson singing "Days Gone By" for Ronnie.
Guitarist Buzz Thompson and blues harp players Jerome Godboo and Roly Platt were also part of the star-studded lineup that night, as were guitar virtuosos Domenic Troiano and Jeff Healey. Doug Inglis was playing drums simultaneously with Levon Helm, who was on a separate drum kit. Also part of the entertainment were The Weber Brothers, as well as The Partland Brothers; David Wilcox and Goddo founder Greg Godovitz on scorching lead guitar riffs and some vocals - with backup singers B.J. Cook, Patti Jannetta and Shawn Jackson helping pay tribute to The Hawk the best way they knew - in song!
Bill Clinton himself, a dedicated Hawkins fan and longtime friend, also appeared -- on two huge TV's perched above the Massey Hall stage that night of Oct. 4th, 2002 to say hello to his good friend Ronnie, in what seemed like a 'farewell to a beloved friend'. Clinton's optimistic and friendly manner in his prerecorded video message to Hawkins that night, seemed very inspirational to this writer. Clinton awed the crowd in attendance, who showed reverence, respect and appreciation for Clinton's heartfelt appearance to say "Hi" to his old friend, Ronnie Hawkins. Another special guest via the same TV monitors, included famed music producer and former Hawk, David Foster, as well as guitarist Domenic Troiano -- even though Dom also appeared on stage this night, as part of the talent roster.
Most in attendance that night in Oct. 2002, felt that Ronnie's days were numbered -- literally. Even the doctors' prognosis gave The Hawk only two or three months to live. Anne Pick's Still Alive & Kickin’ documentary was scheduled to be a two-parter -- with the first half featuring The Hawk as he was alive -- then part two, as the events unfolded after he passed away.
Ronnie fooled 'em all by hanging on and making a full recovery to the effervescent and lively character we all know and love to this day. Even this writer's first excursion into Goldmine Magazine, with the Ronnie Hawkins Oct. 4, 2002 Tribute Concert review, was bumped ahead to a Jan. 10, 2003 publishing date (and Ronnie's 68th birthday) in the annual Elvis cover issue - thanks to the kind understanding of then-Goldmine-editor Greg Loescher. It was felt that a February or March 2003 publishing date for my concert review might find Hawkins either too weak or near death to be cheered up by this review.
The fact that Hawkins survived all this stuff, like a rockabilly cat with at least nine lives we know of (and maybe more he's not talking about), makes this night at Massey Hall, December 17, 2005, that much more special! Here's a living miracle in progress, entertaining his friends and fans three years after he was supposed to be as dead as Elvis is purported to be .. but the Hawk's not gone yet! Ronnie's still rockin' and rollin' as good as ever -- like he's swallowed a 'proton energy pill' given to him by 1960s cartoon superhero Roger Ramjet. Maybe a little help from Rompin' Ronnie's 'energy healer' Adam, might have done the trick too, helping in Ronnie's recovery. Or as Ronnie puts it, "With a little help from the 'Big Rocker' in the sky!"
Now that the trip down Massey Hall's 'Memory Lane' with Ronnie Hawkins has 'reached port' again, we're back with The Webers going full force this night in Dec. 2005, backing Ronnie like there was no tomorrow. Ronnie sang many of his all-time rockabilly classics like "Wild Little Willie", "Mary Lou", "Down In The Alley", "Let It Rock" -- and his signature tune, "Bo Diddley". The Webers' energy on stage, was unrelenting. They made it feel like it was 1956 again -- and Elvis and The Hawk were in their heyday!
One of the main highlights for this writer, during this Dec. 17, 2005 Ronnie Hawkins/Massey Hall concert, occurred when Ryan Weber climbed atop his upright bass (reminiscent of the antics of Bill Haley & The Comets bassist Al Rex in the '50s), and rocked it with some lightning fast leads, as if Jaco Pastorius had come back from 'bass players' Heaven' as a rockabilly 'God'. Throughout this stunning performance, brother Sam Weber's guitar leads and slides seemed to emanate from the rarified stratosphere where another late and very great rockabilly guitar 'God' Mr. Carl 'Mr. Blue Suede Shoes' Perkins drew his rockin' 'n' rollin' inspiration from -- as this writer witnessed Perkins do live in two back-to-back renditions of "Blues Suede Shoes" with Ronnie and Robin Hawkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Band, Buzz Thompson and Jeff Healey on this very same Massey Hall stage on Jan. 11, 1995.
Rock 'n' roll lives on in young talent like The Weber Brothers, who sound like a reincarnation of the old rockers when they first started in rock 'n' roll's early days in the 1950s. Hawkins sang up a storm .. The Webers played up a storm .. and the audience appreciation for all this fine talent on stage, screamed and applauded unrelentingly! The fans' exuberance was almost as good as the show on stage! The energy onstage and off was spontaneous and upbeat all the way!
I think possibly the good times here this night were made that much better, because of the expertise in the music business of this concert's producer -- composer/conductor/pianist David Warrack -- who like Hawkins understands the finer points of putting on a successful show. Warrack's right hand man who 'wore many hats' this night, Jim Zeppa, is a human fireball of energy himself. He helped this show get 'on the road' so to speak, months in advance, with publicity and his always-encouraging enthusiasm to whomever he contacted about Hawkins' much-anticipated Dec. 17-05 Massey Hall concert. Zeppa helped keep this show moving fast-paced without a hitch, and ensured the performers onstage and the audience alike enjoyed this show the best they could. He along with Warrack's background in live theatre helped this show go over well, as one of Hawkins' best ever to date!
Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks have always been able to entertain an audience with energy, style and flair. Whether it be in some honky tonk, juke joint or 'dive' in 1950s Arkansas with the multi-talented Leon Russell as a teenager playing piano with The Hawk; or in a prestigious and lavish venue like the Royal York's Imperial Room; or in the 'Old Lady of Shuter St.' Massey Hall, Ronnie Hawkins concerts are always first rate!
Massey Hall, built in 1894, is one of the premier concert halls in the world. It's known far and wide by audiences and artists alike, for its exquisite acoustics, ambiance and late 19th century Belle Epoque decor! Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, certainly did it justice this night standing the test of time -- with one of the most memorable and highly entertaining concerts this writer will see in his lifetime!
For those wishing to see highlights of The Hawk at this Dec. 17-05 Massey Hall concert, there's 15 minutes of live concert footage free to view with permission from Ronnie Hawkins, at CanadaJams.ca, at this link: http://www.canadajams.ca/1_frontrowcentre.htm#2005.12.17 There's also live footage of The Weber Brothers and Buzz Thompson to view, at this same link.