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Dale Hawkins, Susie-Q and the rockabilly groove

From our newsroom's blues musician, Terence McArdle:

Dale Hawkins, who died Saturday, was one of the first generation of rockabilly performers and became famous for the song "Susie-Q." The song became a bar band standard after John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival covered it. Mr. Hawkins' career was significant in several other respects.

Mr. Hawkins worked with some of the genre's greatest guitarists including James Burton, who went on to work with Ricky Nelson and Elvis; Roy Buchanan, who taught Robbie Robertson of the Band; and Elvis' original guitarist Scotty Moore. He also produced a number of pop hits in the late 1960s. I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Hawkins backed up by Deke Dickerson at the Rockin' 50s Festival in Green Bay some years back and Dickerson easily belongs in their esteemed ranks. Dickerson is also something of a performing musicologist -- a historian of rockabilly, country and surf music as well as the "gearhead" world of vintage guitars and amplifiers. I e-mailed him for his insights on Mr. Hawkins' career.

Here's the Q&A:

Q: What made his music unique when compared to other rockabillys and rock'n'roll performers from his era?

A: Dale didn't like being called a "rockabilly," and I think that's the main difference. I always tried to tell him, though, that my definition of rockabilly is a white guy who loves playing blues, who also happens to be completely crazy. And Dale fit that definition!
Jimmie Lee Fautheree (another Lousiana rockabilly performer) told me that one time he had to go pick up Dale Hawkins across town in Shreveport when they were both living there in the mid 1950's. He said Dale lived in the black part of town in a shotgun shack. Inside the house was a folding cot, and stacks upon stacks -- thousands -- of blues 78s and a little portable record player. That's it! Nothing else!
Later, I asked Dale about it, and he replied "Yes, that's true," like it was completely normal to have such a living arrangement.
Dale's music was kind of all over the map, but it was always wild party music with an emphasis on feel rather than musical proficiency. A lot of his best records, you couldn't match the feel, but the musicians were making mistakes -- on the records! That's the sort of thing sadly lacking from the music business today.

Q: Electric bassist Joe Osborne is real prominent on many of Mr. Hawkins' early recordings. Was Mr. Hawkins one of the first rockabillys to use the electric bass?

A: Yes, and I think that's because Dale loved electric blues so much. He wanted to be "uptown" and I think the upright bass reminded him of hillbillies.

Q: Can you comment on the guitarists who worked with Mr. Hawkins?

A: Dale had the most amazing list of guitar players that passed through his ranks -- it almost sounds like a joke when you say that he had James Burton, Scotty Moore, Roy Buchanan, etc. back him up! When I got a chance to play with him I thought to myself, well, I must be good, because Dale hawkins doesn't mess with bad guitar players! NOTE: Scotty Moore was Elvis Presley's original guitarist while James Burton, later an L.A. session player, recorded with Ricky Nelson, Merle Haggard and would go on to play in Presley's 1970s touring band. Roy Buchanan has a significant solo career while based in Washington, D.C. and was once approached to join the Rolling Stones.

Q: Is there any truth to Roy Buchanan's claim that that the riff on Suzy Q came from a Howlin' Wolf song?

A: Well, it's certainly a bastardization of many standard blues riffs, and sounds a lot like of Howlin' Wolf's songs, but I can't say that exact riff came from a Howlin' Wolf song.

Q: Did Mr. Hawkins share any unique experiences or stories about his work with producer Leonard Chess or any of the blues performers on Chess?

A: He told a few stories that would raise the hair on your neck, mostly about how the Chicago record label scene was all mafia-controlled, and when you got signed to the label, they put you up in a hotel and told you where to eat and where you could go and not go. I think Dale got a huge kick out of being on a predominantly black label and getting to meet a lot of those guys like Muddy Waters and the Wolf.
The most amazing stories Dale told were about the insane touring they used to do, in a car or a station wagon, before the interstate system was fully built. They would drive a thousand miles here, 800 miles there, go do a recording session, then drive to Canada. I am a full time touring musician and to me, their pace seems completely insane!

Q: How big was Mr. Hawkins' touring band? It seems that he once had back-up singers, the Lewis Sisters and also the two brothers in his band, the Mathis Brothers, who later sang in the group the Newbeats.

A: I get the impression that the touring band was often whoever he could get to go out on a package tour. I hadn't heard about the Lewis Sisters before, but he mentioned many times (on stage) that he played with the guys who became the Newbeats -- which he would then always follow by singing their 1960s hit "Bread and Butter," a reference I got but often wondered if any of the rockabillies listening even knew that song!.

Q: Did Mr. Hawkins say why he got left performing to go into record production in the 1960s?

A: No, but I think it's like a lot of those guys. He had his 15 minutes, and each record sold less than the last one. Eventually you get to the point where you realize you have to do something else. Dale was always doing something -- whether it was producing, recording or playing.

Q: What was it like working with Mr. Hawkins on the rockabilly shows? How many times did you get to work together?

A: I got to work with Dale probably a couple dozen times. every time was a blast and completely different than the time before. Dale was great in his complete never knew what to expect!
Dale was a whirling dervish of energy and he was really difficult to get "focused" into anyone else's ideas or plans. For instance, the first time I backed up Dale, at a festival in Green Bay, we had to do a pretty long set, an hour and fifteen minutes, if I recall. Dale has about 7 or 8 uptempo numbers in his list of songs that all feature the cowbell, so I made up a setlist that spaced all those songs out over the length of the set. Well, when Dale came out, he opened with "Suzy Q," which is one of the songs featuring cowbell. Then, he spontaneously called out "Baby Baby," which is another one of the songs with a cowbell. Sure enough, Dale called out all of the cowbell songs in a row, and after doing every single one, turned to me and said, "Deke, how much time we got left?" I told him, "Oh, about an hour... " That was Dale!

Please feel free to add any other thoughts about Dale Hawkins that you would like to add.

Dale was one of the last living connections to a different time in the music business, when coming up with a simple riff or a catchy lyric was the key element to a hit song, and a recording session done in the back room of a television repair shop could become a number one hit on the charts. Dale never lost that excitement, that spontaneity, of that era -- and it rubbed off on everybody that he came into contact with. I will miss him dearly.

By Patricia Sullivan  |  February 18, 2010; 12:17 PM ET
Categories:  Musicians , Terence McArdle  
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