Remembering ‘The Hawk’

“The Hawk.”
A Memory
by G. William Streeter

My family, friends and acquaintances have heard “ad nauseum” about the fact that in 1960 I hitchhiked from Southampton to Toronto with $25 in my pocket. All I will say today is that it is true.

After sponging off of an older cousin for a couple of weeks, I found a job and went to a large boarding house with about 8 other young Canadian boys that had found their way to Toronto in search of work or of fame and fortune. The age of rock and roll was in full swing, and the Toronto music scene was second to none in North America. The greatest stars worked the bar scene in all the major cities of North America. No, I was not 21 yet but there was no such thing as photo ID and a friends drivers license was always available to use for proof of age.

With limited cash available we really had to pick our spots and nights to see some of the greats. They included, for me, Roy Orbison, Paul Anka, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. But the guy who was there a lot of the time and became the centre of the scene was the Hillbilly from Arkansas, Rompin Ronnie Hawkins.

In fact, he lived in a large flat right above the Le Coq d’Or for a long period, that everyone knew as ‘The Hawk’s Nest’. The stories were rampant about drug use and sex orgies. The line-ups were long for his shows every time you went.

This week there were two things that happened almost simultaneously. The Hawk died at 87 and I turned 80.

Well, we can talk about how crazy the scene is today for our young people but let us not forget how crazy it was 60 years ago. This is not my time for confession, and it will probably never be, but stupidity was quite well spread around in the early 60’s as well.

But I just wanted to talk about The Hawk and what he contributed to music in Canada. It can only be told by some of our greatest stars that give him a lot of credit for helping them to be successful in a wild and crazy industry. I have been reading the accolades and stories of how he impacted in a positive way Gordon Lightfoot, Sylvia Tyson, Robbie Lane, The Band etc.

Ronnie was a great storyteller, and his Paul Anka story is a classic.

Hawkins and the Hawks were in a show in Chicago being headlined by Anka. They pull up in front of the hotel in a Cadillac with a trailer. Paul is sitting out in front in a tee shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. Levon Helm is driving, Ronnie rolls the window down and calls to Anka, “Hey boy come over here”. Paul walks over and politely says, “Yes, what do you want”. Ronnie relies, “I want you to help us carry this stuff in. Aren’t you the bellhop at this place?” Paul replied, “Don’t you recognize me, I am Paul Anka.” The Hawk replies, “I am Ronnie Hawkins, come over and grab some of these suitcases”. Paul just shook his head and grabbed some suitcases.

Another time when the Toronto newspapers were talking about drug use and orgies in the Hawk’s flat above the Le Coq d’Or a local minister went to the bar and confronted Ronnie between sets. The story is told this way. The minister went up to him and said “Ronnie Hawkins, do you not believe in God?” The Hawk replied, “I do and more than anyone else on this planet, but I am a little bit leery about the ground crew.”

The final story that I will repeat is when he wanted to upgrade from the Cadillac to a Rolls Royce. He was dropped off at the Rolls dealership. The car was $18,000 and Ronnie said OK and was starting to write a check when the salesman said that he would have to have his check certified at the dealership’s bank and it would take a couple of days. Ronnie walked out and came back in 30 minutes with $18,000 stuffed in a paper bag.

A true character and a great Canadian (born in Arkansas).

In 2014, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada “for his contributions to the development of the music industry in Canada as a rock ’n roll musician, and for his support of charitable causes.”