‘Ronnie Hawkins’/’Mr. Dynamo’ (08/09/69)

hawkins-dynamo

Ronnie Hawkins came down out of the Ozarks, and after gigging with Carl Perkins and Harold Jenkins (later Conway Twitty), he decided he wanted to become a star. The man with the big cigar wasn’t around at the time, though, so in 1958, with the help of a few homeboys like Levon Helm, Ronnie got the Hawks together and hit the road to stardom. Dig him, if you can: “Mohair Sam” black suit, black pumps, white on white shirt, white tie—wopbobaloobopbalopbamboom!dynamo1Though Chuck Berry’s “Forty Days” was his first hit, Hawkins, unlike most of the public relations artifacts of his day, wrote most of his own material, often with the aid of Helm and later Robbie Robertson. While Hawkins’ first LP Ronnie Hawkins (1959) includes his two biggest hits, “Mary Lou” (“She took my cadillac car”) and “Forty Days” (easily available in oldies shops, or $1.25 each by mail from House of Oldies, 267 Bleeker St., N.Y., N.Y., 10014), as well as “Odessa,” it’s on the second LP, Mr. Dynamo, that Ronnie and the Hawks come into their own as one of the very best of the early rock and roll bands. They just might have been the best.

By 1960 Hawkins had developed into a fluid, sensual vocalist with an unparalleled flair for carrying a melody over a fast tempo. Ronnie’s excellence notwithstanding, what truly distinguishes this recording is the imagination and sophistication of the sidemen. Unlike most “group” recordings of the day, which were made with session men, this was a band, whipped into shape by Hawkins himself, and the ease with which they’d move into an instrumental and the excitement they generated when they really hit their groove showed the difference. The Hawks seemed to have a perfect feel for each other’s strengths and weaknesses, playing with the timing of Nashville studio musicians and the enthusiasm of young kids.dynamo2Often they’d augment their usual instrumentation of bass, guitar, piano and drums with sax, a strong vibrant organ, or a high trick female voice which produced a sound something like Dylan’s police whistle on Highway 61 Revisited.

Helm’s drumming is extraordinary for 1960—he never misses a chance to move in on his own, setting up the guitarist for tense, snappy lines that are irresistible in their impact, always keeping complete control over his small drum kit, just as he does today.

Many of the band’s best arrangements, as on the spooky “Southern Love,” are close to those of Dion and the Belmonts, the musicians backing Hawkins with deep, insistent vocal riffing. They’d set two riffs against each other—“Wild little Willie, wild little Willie” vs. “Oh-dooby-doo (bump-bump), oh-dooby-doo (bump-bump)”—and the tough masculinity of their sound, as contrasted to the usual rock and roll falsetto, gave their choruses a special impact. Probably their best job in this vein is “Someone Like You,” a song with snappy Latin beat, a song that flows just like wine out of a bottle.
dynamo3
And drummer Levon Helm—why doesn’t he write more songs these days? Levon Helm was the author, all by himself, of “You Cheated (You Lied),” a superb cut on Mr. Dynamo, later a Number One record by the Shields. Before you dismiss these records as some sort of dreary nostalgia, instead of searching through old shops or writing to Roulette Records for them, think about this: Levon Helm reached more people with more impact with “You Cheated” than the Band has with Music From Big Pink, just as “My Generation,” as Pete Townshend says, had more impact than all of Tommy. Maybe the solution is for the Band to re-record “You Cheated” and get back on Top 40.

That’s one way of bringing it all back home—and they might just bring Ronnie Hawkins back with them.


Rolling Stone August 9, 1969


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