Robbie Robertson, the founding guitarist and principal songwriter for The Band, has paid tribute to his former employer, rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins passed away on Sunday at the age of 87.
In a letter posted to his social media, Robertson calls Hawkins The Band’s “mentor. He taught us the rules of the road.” Hawkins assembled what would eventually go on to be the full lineup of The Band, including Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson.
The Band toured as Hawkins’ backing band, then called The Hawks, from 1957 to 1963. The Hawks went under a few different names briefly before hooking up with Bob Dylan as his backing band when Dylan went electric in 1965.
After roughly three years, most of which were spent without Helm, The Band officially became an independent entity and began recording their debut Music From Big Pink, named after the small house that The Band and Dylan would rehearse and record in for The Basement Tapes.
The Band later paid tribute to Hawkins during their final performance with the original lineup. Hawkins sang a version of Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’ with the group during the November 25th, 1976 performance that eventually became the documentary film The Last Waltz.
Read Robertson’s full tribute to Hawkins down below.
My heart sank when I heard “The Hawk” just flew into the sunset.
The story of The Band began with Ronnie Hawkins. He was our mentor. He taught us the rules of the road.
Ronnie Hawkins brought me down from Canada to the Mississippi delta when I was 16. He recorded two songs I’d written and thought I might be talented. He tried me out on guitar and bass the only problem was; I’m too young to play in the clubs they toured, I was too inexperienced, not a good enough musician yet, and there are NO Canadians in southern rock and roll bands. But I practiced until my fingers were bleeding and he ended up hiring me against all odds.
Ron prided himself in always having top notch players in his group. Levon Helm his drummer in the Hawks and I talked Ron into hiring Rick Danko on bass and vocals, Richard Manuel on piano and vocals and Garth Hudson on organ and sax. Along with Levon and me this became the magic combination.
Ronnie was the godfather. The one who made this all happen.
He had us rehearsing constantly into the wee hours. We balked about it, but we got better and better. Our goal whether we knew it or not.
After the Hawks left Ron and went out on our own, we joined up with Bob Dylan. Next the Hawks became The Band and the rest is history, as they say.
All starting out with Ronnie Hawkins.
He was not only a great artist, a tremendous performer and bandleader, but had a style of humor unequaled. Fall down funny and completely unique. Yep, God only made one of those. And he will live in our hearts forever.
My deepest condolensces to his family.
Bless his soul.