Ronnie Hawkins, Musician and Mentor to The Band, Dead at 87

Hawkins worked with a host of musical legends over the years

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins in his prime.
Harold Barkley/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Some artists have their claim to fame cemented by the work they’ve made. For others, it’s through the influence they’ve had on their style of choice. For Ronnie Hawkins, who died on Sunday, it was a little of both. Hawkins was known for his long career as a rockabilly singer — and for playing Bob Dylan in Dylan’s 1978 film Renaldo and Clara.

But Hawkins was also known for his ability to recognize and cultivate musical talent. One iteration of his backing band, The Hawks, went on to back Bob Dylan, and eventually became The Band. As Robbie Robertson wrote in a tribute to Hawkins on Twitter, “He was our mentor. He taught us the rules of the road.”

Levon Helm had been playing with Hawkins since the late 1950s, and Robertson joined the Hawks in 1960. Eventually, the lineup would grow to include Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko as well. “[Hawkins] had us rehearsing constantly into the wee hours,” Robertson recalled. “We balked about it, but we got better and better. Our goal whether we knew it or not.”

Hawkins went on to make a memorable appearance at The Band’s farewell concert, which was documented on film in The Last Waltz. As for his own career, he continued to record music, with his final album — titled Still Cruisin’ — released in 2002. As the CBC noted in their obituary of Hawkins, he recorded with Gordon Lightfoot and Kris Kristofferson as recently as 2016, but it’s unclear what came of those sessions.

Hawkins leaves behind an array of acclaimed music and a significant influence on several of its most influential players. as legacies go, it’s an impressive one.

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