Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rockabilly Pioneer Dale Hawkins Passe On

Rockabilly pioneer Dale Hawkins, best known for his hit "Suzie Q," passed on February 13 at the age of 73. The cause was colon cancer.

Dale Hawkins was born on his grandfather's cotton farm near Goldmine, Louisiana on August 22, 1936. Although they worked independently of each other, his first cousin was fellow rock 'n' roll ledge Ronnie Hawkins. Dale Hawkins' parent divorced when he was only three years old. His father toured as a musician for a short time, even working with the Sons of the Pioneers. Hawkins took an interest in music early, shining shoes and delivering newspapers when he was only nine years old in order to buy a guitar. At the age of fifteen Hawkins enlisted in the United States Navy. He served aboard a destroyer during the Korean War. Following his service, Hawkins lived with his mother in Shreveport, Louisiana. There he worked in a record store, spending his nights playing in clubs.

Dale Hawkins made his first record as the direct result of someone else's hit. Taking notice of the 1956 Bobby Charles hit "See You Later, Alligator," Hawkins wrote a response entitled "See You Soon, Baboon." Hawkins' boss at the record store, Stan Lewis, was impressed enough with the song to recommend Hawkins to his friend, :Leonard Chess, the owner of the legendary Chess Records. Dale Hawkins became the first European American artist signed to the label. While "See You Soon, Baboon" did little business, his next song would be a smash hit. "Susie Q" featured one of the most distinctive guitar riffs ever written. In 1957 the song reached #27 on the Billboard singles chart. It would be covered by Gene Vincent, The Rolling Stones, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and, most notably, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Sadly, Dale Hawkins was never quite able to match the success he head with "Suzy Q." He has respectable success with such songs as "La-Do-Dada," "My Babe," "Superman," "A House, a Car, and a Wedding Ring," and "Class Cutter (Yeah, Yeah)." Unfortunately, rockabilly's days were numbered and Dale Hawkins stopped recording with Chess in 1961. In 1960 he became the host of a teen dance party show, The Dale Hawkins Show, which aired locally on WCAU in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It lasted a year and a half.

By the mid Sixties Dale Hawkins became a record producer. He produced “Not Too Long Ago”  and “All These Things” for The Uniques, "Do It Again - A Little Bit Slower" for Jon and Robin, and "Western Union" for The Five Americans. He was executive vice president of Abnak Records and later Vice President, Southwest Division, Bell Records, where he produced James Bell, Bruce Channel, Ronnie Self, The Dolls, and The Gentrys, among others). He later served as  A&R director, RCA West Coast Rock Division, where he worked with such notables as Mike Nesmith and Harry Nilsson.

It was in 1999 that he released his first album of new material in over thirty years, Wildcat Tamer. In 2007 he released his last album, Back Down to Louisiana.

While Dale Hawkins' success was brief, he would leave an indelible  mark on rock 'n' roll. With its distinctive riff, "Suzy Q" was the forerunner of nearly every guitar driven subgenre of rock, including garage rock, power pop, and heavy metal. Indeed, its heavy, bluesy guitar would provide the gist for the evolution of heavy metal nearly ten years later. Of course, while Dale Hawkins' career might have begun with "Suzy Q," it did not end with it. Over the years, Dale Hawkins would produce a large number of quality songs, even when those songs were not necessarily hits. He was a true rock 'n' roll pioneer.

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