Ronnie Hawkins Biography

Age 17

Before The Hawk Flew
A Biography of Ronnie Hawkins
By Bobby Winifred Law

"Copyright, 1997, Bobbie Winifred Law. All rights expressly reserved. No duplication of this material may be made without the author's express consent. For any additional information regarding 'Before the Hawk Flew', please call Zebulon Law at (714)553-1991."

The following segment is of this story is by Ed "Bubba" Burks. He has been a long time friend of my brother Ron and even though his association begins in the summer of 1954, this story spans the spring of 1958--the period when the Hawk was testing his wings. Ron's favorite name for Ed Burks was "Edreekis." I'm quoting Bubba.

Ronnie Hawkins Delta Musicians Page

Before The Hawk Flew
Part IV
Testing the Wings

"I hope my input regarding my long association and friendship with Ron is helpful to your literary endeavors and possibly will shed some light on the long and exciting life of "The Hawk" that has been heretofore overlooked or thought to trivial to be brought into account."

Immediately following my discharge from the U.S. Navy in February 1954, I came to Fayetteville in time to enroll for the spring semester in the Business College of the University of Arkansas.

I completed the spring semester and continued on with summer session,. Upon occasion several of us from my fraternity house, Kappa Sigma, would go to Wilson Park and seek relief in the cool waters of the swimming pool. As I recall, the heat that summer was particularly oppressive. It was on one of thee sweltering summer afternoons when we were enjoying the pool that I recall watching a diving exhibition by two expert aquatic divers. They did all sorts of high board tricks including full gainers, half gainers, front flips, back flips, inside loops, outside loops (and probably a few fruit loops as well) not to mention several splasher cannonballs that created massive tidal waves throughout the pool. Soon the clowning pair had the full attention of those inside as well as outside the pool. I thought, What a show! Who are those Guys? One of the guys told me they were Ronnie Hawkins and Doug Douglas.

From time to time in the ensuing weeks I would happen into Ron and we became friends. Once in a while he would come to visit at the Kappa Sigma house. In the fall semester of 1954, I put a musical group together on weekends at the Tee Table, a tavern where lots of college kids would frequent. Our band was dubbed "Moses" and the Tee Cups. As to why they called me "Moses" (and many still do to this day) gets into another story that i need not get into here. Ronnie and some of his friends would congregate at the Tee Table every so often, and that is now it came to my attention that Ron had some vocal talent. He asked to sing a number with the Tee Cups and he sang his rendition of "John Henry," everyone enjoyed So from time to time, Ron would sit in with us and do two or three songs.

Our guitar player for the Tee Cups was the co-captain of the Razorback football team -- running back Teddy Souter. Ron liked the way Teddy played, so he recruited Teddy to lay with him when he formed a combo comprised of Claude Chambers on bass, Bobby Keen on guitar, and Herman "Killer" Tuck on drums. Harold Pinkerton played rhythm guitar and was usually part of the entourage even if he didn't participate musically. Teddy played lead guitar usually with Ron and alternating playin time between Ron's and my band.

Up to this point, I had not seen Ron's visual exhibition of showmanship. I remember one evening in particular. Dayton Statton, who managed the Tee Table came up to me and said, "Ed, if you don't mind, go ahead and take a break and we'll let Ronnie and his band play a couple of numbers." I willingly acceded and in a few minutes through the crowd comes Ron and his combo.

They quickly moved to the bandstand and set up . This was the spring of 1956 as I recall, and in those days amplification of musical instruments was in its infancy as compared to what it has come to be by today's standards. Teddy had his amp (incidentally, he was playing with the Tee Cups that evening) I believe Herman brought his own drums, and Claude played acoustic upright bass. Consequently, it didn't take long for those guys to set up.

We all wondered what was getting ready to take place, as none of us knew that Ronnie had anything bandwise especially one ready to be publicly performed. Well, we didn't have long to wait. The boys cranked up with "Oobie Doobie" and Ron vaulted across the floor with his one foot scoot and grabbed the mike and mike stand as he leaned down in a half split to the floor then back up to his upright stance. He spun to the right and clowned with Claude who was giving his bass a workout with his slap-rock rhythm that accented with Herman's backbeat.

Soon the song shifted to "Move on Down the Line" and Ronnie's gyrations increased in intensity as he did another spin and glided into another foot scoot that sent him ot the floor as he belted out the words of the song. The crowd (particularly the people in the vicinity of the band stand) got up on chairs and tables to watch this sudden and unexpected explosion of rock-a-billy gymnastics, and it was as though they were mesmerized by what they were witnessing. I don't remember how many numbers they did, but when the episode was over and the guys left as suddenly as they appeared, the crowd was speachless and dumbfounded as though they could not believe what they had seen.

That was my first encounter with Ron's visual performance of body spasm that would eventually lead him to fame as a true and unique rocker.

Ronnie Hawkins

From time to time, Ronnie and combo would play engagements in the Northwest Arkansas area. Some of the gigs conflicted with my band's time slots and Teddy would tell that he would play with Ron of some of those jobs, and then he would come back and play with the Tee Cups, So he was back and forth.

Dayton Stratton left the Tee Table and later opened the old Bubble Club north of town. When that happened, many of the Tee Table crowd migrated to the new club which Dayton dubbed the Shamrock Club. The Shamrock was probably two and a half times larger than the Tee Table, and as it gained in popularity, Dayton (who always heavily catered to the college crowd) was soon booked with early rockers such as Roy Orbison, Harold Jenkins (who later became famous as Conway Twitty) and his band the Rockhousers, and Billy Lee Riley and The Little Green Men. There were also Bill Black's Combo, Ace Cannon and Carl Perkins as I recall.

In the spring of 1957, Harold Jenkins played a one night stand at the Shamrock. Harold was from my hometown of Helena. I remember Harold's drummer was Billy Ware. On upright bass was a guy named Red or Bill, and on lead guitar was Jimmy Ray "Luke" Paulman. So on this particular night, the Shamrock crowd asked Harold if Ron could come up and do a song or two. When that happened, Ronnie once again turned on his dynamic fancy footwork and electrified the audience. That's how Jimmy Ray and Ronnie met. Shortly after that time, Ron went into the Special Services of the Army. It was a special six months deal because he had been in the National Guard for three or four years.

Harold Jenkins had also gone into the service and was discharged in March 1956. He stopped off in New York and connected up with Don Deitz who became his manager. Harold's new name of Conway Twitty (after Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas) ensued. Jimmy Ray didn't like the Twitty name. He said it sounded too "fruity". He told Willie Willis, the sax player, that he was going to quit Harold's group and go back home. Jimmy told me this himself, "Anybody who calls himself Conway Twitty will come to much embarassment; I'm not going to lay with anybody who has such a silly name". So he went home and called Ronnie. By now in was the fall of 1957, and Ronnie and done his stint in service.

Elvis was in the army or was just about to go. Ronnie and Jimmy Ray got together and since Jimmy Ray lived in Marianna which was a neighboring town to Helena, the plan was to go to Helena and form a group. When I discovered that Ron didn't have a place to stay ( I think he had stayed a few nights at Rainbow Inn when Donnie Stone came down with him), I offered him a place to stay at my grandmother's house. She had plenty of room and rented our rooms from time to time. So that's what was decided. Ron took a room across the hall from me. I stayed at grandmother's house from time to time. She loved company and liked Ron right away. It was during those days that Ron and I talked about forming a group. Ron says to me "We have Jimmy Ray on guitar." (About that time period Ron starting referring to Jimmy Ray as Luke or Jimmy Luke) I don't know where "Luke" got started but it persists to this day.

One night as we sat up late talking of days gone by and particularly of things to come, Ron says to me, "Bubba, you can play drums, can't you?" (My grandmother always called me Bubba, so Ron picked it up along with many others who did then and still do.) "Edreekis," he said "with your talent I know you could play drums if you got a set of drums and practiced. Luke would help you." Edreekis was a pet name Ron would sometimes use. He would sometimes refer to Teddy Souter as Tedreekis. Reekis was his favorite suffix.

In response to Ron's suggestion that I play drums, I said, "Well, Ron, you know I play the clarinet (which is dead for Rock and Roll) and the harmonica, which I've played since way back in the '40's" At that time, harmonica was not one of the "in" instruments for rock n roll--as it later became. I continued, "I've heard about a good drummer from Marvell." "What's his name?" Ron asked. "Levon Helm", I said "In fact, we both played on a variety show in Memphis recently. He and his sister do a tub and guitar act, and they both sing. Levon also plays in high school band a Marvell.

So as things worked out , "Levon was recruited and Jimmy Ray contacted his first cousin, Willard Jones, who lived in the Marianna area. Willard played a good gospel-rock-a-billy piano, very similar to Jerry Lee Lewis.

Hawkins and Pop Jones
Ronnie and Willard Jones

In those early days in Helena, rehearsals were usually held upon occasion at grandmother's living room. Since I had an inside connection with radio station KFFA -- home of "King Biscuit Time" -- where I had been on the broadcasters in 1951, we would set up in the studio at KFFA and rehearse. Soon after that, rehearsal were held at the Delta Supper Club in West Helena where the group would play from time to time. That was the start of a booking circuit that expanded from there into Northeast Arkansas and on up into Southern Missouri as well as into North Central Arkansas. The undisputed popularity of the group continued to gain in momentum, and when the word got out that Ronnie Hawkins and band was scheduled to make an appearance at such and such club owners could safely count on a packed house. Those were the days before the clubs would guarantee musicians any certain amount to play the respective clubs. Consequently, the money was generated by way of a cover charge at the door, and the bands worked for a percentage of the door. Over time, Ron could negotiate for a higher percentage since he was a proven draw.

One of the key figures of influence in those early pioneer days in Helena was a local businessman, Charlie Halbert, who was a substantial property owner. Halbert owned and operated the small fleet of ferry boats which ferried cars, trucks, and buses across the Mississippi River at Helena from the Arkansas side over the Mississippi side. One of the pilots on the ferries was Floyd Jenkins, father of Harold Jenkins (better known as Conway Twitty) Halbert, took an interest in young Harold and encouraged him to persevere when times were tough. (Several times Conway wanted to give up.) Though Conway's connection with Don Seitz, Conway was performing primarily in Canada and would also make the rounds to other places including Arkansas, thereby expanding his fame. Harold had outgrown the Delta Supper Club but would come back on occasion and visit.

It was on one of these visit that I recall a conversation that took place between Ronnie and Conway. (Ronnie would refer to him as Conrad) Ronnie was asking Conway about bookings and clubs in Canada, and Conway had stated that the clubs up there paid a guarantee of so much and that upon proving yourself, then the guarantee would accelerate. Ronnie wanted to know more about the situation and and particular how this would apply to him career-wise. Harold advised Ronnie that he (Ron) should consider gearing his performance to a less dynamic visual performance because "the people don't want to see a performer gyrating and jumpin' around like a jumpin' bean on Benzedrine. They come to hear the music and listen to you sing." said Conway.

It's true that Conway was becoming known nationally without having to cavort and jump around. It's also true that Ronnie was looking for answers that would give him a boost upward, and ronnie had faith in his own abilities as a performer thereby disregarding Conway's advice to him performance wise. At the time this conversation took place between Conway and Ron those of us who were witness to that encounter chuckled out loud or to ourselves and considered Conway's advice nothing short of jealousy on his part. Everyone knew that Ronnie's strongest asset was his gymnastic performance on stage.

Ron and Carl Perkins
Ronnie and Carl Perkins 1957

Charlie Halbert also owned and operated the Rainbow Inn motel in Helena in those days and enjoyed music sessions at the motel. Charlie placed a little guitar himself and enjoyed showing off with his renditions of several bawdy songs in his repertoire. He loved to gather us around him and then have Jimmy Ray (Luke) sing a few songs and then accompany ronnie as he would sing. I would generally join in on the harmonica. These back room sessions would take place usually on the spur of the moment and at times when there were open dates on the booking calendar. Charlie really enjoyed Ron's company and knew that bigger things were waiting for him career wise. Charlie helped momentarily by advancing funds for wardrobe changes and providing instruments for Luke and Levon and in some cases furnishing transportation. Things really started to rock.

Like I say, the crowd came and so did the sweet young things. Yes, the sweet young things abounded in profusion. I don't know if anyone ever kept an account of how many. One particular incident stands out in memory that took place after a big night at the Delta Supper Club.

One of the sweet young things that showed an interest in Ron consented to come along with us to Granny's house for a little get together. This particular lady had piqued Ron's interest not only by her physical attractiveness but further by a remark she made to the effect that when the moon was full she would change into a she wolf. This sweet young thing whom we'll refer to as "Shirley" frequented the supper clubs and had related the "She Wolf" comment to Ron on more than one occasion.

Curious as to what might lie in store for him, Ron decided to entertain the lady in his room. by the way, the moon was full and to add to the suspense of the moment, she had told Ron. "I'll have you howling at the moon." Well that was to much fo a challenge for Ron. Behind closed doors we could hear sounds that were not too unusual in keeping with such intricacies, albeit perhaps somewhat more animalistic than he might be accustomed to,. Low moans and guttural sound emitted from the room intermingled with bumping sounds on the floor. Levon said to me, "Moses, you better get in there and hold the bed down" I said, " If that keeps up, maybe I'd better." We both laughed. As Levon and I turned and walked back down the hall, we heard the bedroom door open and in the darkness of the hallway, we could see the figure of a female as she swiftly darted out of the room and bounded for the stairs. She appeared to be about half clothed and had some clothing in her arms as she vanished from the hall.

We peered out the window from the back of the house that overlooked the fish pond and watched as she disappeared into a grove of trees nearly. I went outside to investigate and upon approaching the trees, suddenly from the underbrush, she sprang out and in a brief moment the moon illuminated the wild look on her face. "Shirley!" I exclaimed, "Are you O.K.?" Without a word she shot past me and took off down the road that was behind the house. Upon going back inside the house, I said to Levon, "well, she's gone." He said, "Where'd she go?"

"I don't know. She just took off running down the road," I said.

About that time Ron came out into the hall, and joined us at the open windows that overlooked the back yard and asked, "What happened to her?" I related to him what I had told Levon, and as we looked up at the full moon, "Listen," we said. Ron said, "Did you all hear that?"

We listened again and heard the unmistakable howling in the distance. "Yeah! Just like a wolf." we all concurred.

"Well, Hawkins, she kept her word," Levon said laughing in that teasing manner he's known for. He went on to say, "I told Moses he'd better go in there and hold the bed down with all that commotion going on."

"Wouldn't have done any good", said Ron. "She was to wild-to wild."

"Did she really turn into a wolf?" asked Levon

I don't know," said Ron. "It was too dark in there, She must have changed into something. Never seen nothin' like that, boys," he went on. "That woman is wild."

Look! Those claw marks on your back, Man!" I exclaimed.

"Damn sow!. She brought the blood!"

"You're gonna turn into a werewolf for sure. We better get yo to a doctor," Levon countered.

"What good's that gonna do? I said. "Don't you know nothin's good for a werewolf bite?"

"Yeah, that's right," said Levon. "I've always heard that. Let's have a smoke and think about it."

"What are you smokin, Moses?", Levon asked.

We sat back, smoked Lucky Strikes, looked at the moon and contemplated this situation. In those days Ronnie wouldn't touch a cigarette.

"Wonder if she's coming back?", I said.

"I'll tell you what, boys, "Ronnie said. "If she does, I'm sickin' her on you all."

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