It was 1958 and music was undergoing a seismic change that is still being felt to this day. Personifying the new, hard-charging, rockabilly chords full of vibrant, raw and guttural sounds was a young, eager southern musician playing his first gig in Canada at a place called the Golden Rail at the corner of King and John streets in Hamilton.
This kind of fusion music was still foreign to Canadian ears.
“The first set we had, seven people show up” said the 79-year-old music legend Ronnie Hawkins. “They all left half-way through our gig. The owner said, ‘Get these hillbillies out of here.’ I knew if we didn’t have more people, we were gone.”
He told the only Canadian he knew, musician Dallas Good, whom he met through Conway Twitty, that if they didn’t have an audience they would have to go back to the United States.
“We sent out an SOS,” said Hawkins. “The next night, on a Tuesday, he rounded up about 60 people. We were a hit afterwards.”
For the 39th annual Festival of Friends, Aug. 8-10, the musical icon and godfather of rock ’n’ roll won’t have trouble attracting an audience. This will be Rompin’ Ronnie Hawks’ third time playing at the festival, but the first at the Ancaster location. He last appeared in 1997 in Gage Park.
“They moved it, right? It’s in Ancaster,” asked Hawkins, during a phone interview from his Stoney Lake property in the Kawarthas overlooking a glistening lake and surrounded by pristine Canadian nature.
Hawkins doesn’t do too much touring these days. Last November Canada’s best honoured Hawkins and his contributions to music with a tribute show at Massey Hall. This year The Hawk was again honoured with an Order of Canada award. In 2002 he was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.
But the legendary musician from Arkansas who travelled to Canada and never left continues to influence the music scene just with his presence and through his friends. His appearance at this year’s Festival of Friends with his son Robin, who is in his band The Hawks and is also performing solo earlier in the day, remains “special” for him.
Hawkins said those songs he performed at the long ago Golden Rail will still be played when he takes to the stage Aug. 9 at 9:30 p.m. Loyalists should look forward to hearing the classics Forty Days, Mary Lou, Hey Bo Diddley and Down in the Valley.
There will be a few guest stars, including Gary Lucas of Burlington who has played guitar in Hawkins’ band.
“It’s going to be great, and I expect to have the place rocking,” he said.
Playing before Hawkins hits the stage will be Danko Jones, the rap-rock band Down with Webster, and the Burlington band Finger Eleven.
Sunday will be a day of vintage country and western, with Tommy Cash, the younger brother of Johnny Cash appearing, along with Jesse Labelle, Grammy award-winner Pam Tillis and multiple Canadian Country Music Award winner Doc Walker.
Also at the free festival will be a carnival, food, festival museum, haunted house, craft vendors and four stages of live entertainment. This will be the third year the festival is in Ancaster after it relocated from the limited confines of Gage Park. Last year the event attracted about 200,000 people.
Hawkins said every generation re-discovers the music of his era. There are young people, he said, who have Last Waltz parties. (The 1978 film The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese is The Band’s final concert performance in San Francisco in 1976.)
Hawkins does keep in contact with his old friends. He last saw Robbie Robertson, of The Band, when Hawkins played for former U.S. president and fellow Arkansas-native Bill Clinton’s 65th birthday bash in 2011.
“He’s gone a little Hollywood,” says Hawkins.
But don’t expect any of his friends, Clinton, or Kris Kristofferson, or Billy Ray Cyrus to make a surprise appearance at the festival.
“They would want too much money,” he said aughing.
Hawkins never expected to stay in Canada when he arrived 56 years ago. He told himself in 10 years he would go back. Then it became 20 years, and finally he just stayed, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1964. He married Wanda, moved north of Peterborough, and had three children.
“All my life I thought about going back to Arkansas. But everybody that I knew are all dead,” he said. “It’s hard for me to go back. I have more notes on me than my piano.”
A few years ago, after years of a boisterous, hard living career, Hawkins found out he had pancreatic cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good 10 years ago. But somehow, Hawkins beat it.
“It was a miracle,” he now says. “I fought it and beat it.”