Rockin Ronnie Hawkins
by Bill Brioux
TORONTO — Ronnie Hawkins lives. It looked like game over for The Hawk two years ago when doctors diagnosed inoperable pancreatic cancer. Friends flew in — including former U.S. president Bill Clinton, Paul Anka, former band members David Foster and Robbie Robertson and old pal Kris Kristofferson — for a farewell party/wake. They even gave him a star on the Canadian Walk Of Fame. Next stop: The Big Rocker in the sky.
Yet there he was recently, back at the scene of the crime — the Library bar of the Royal York hotel — and the stories were flowing like water off a duck’s back.
The 69-year-old rocker was in town to promote tthe Aug. 20 CTV documentary Ronnie Hawkins: Still Alive And Kickin’ (9:30 p.m. on channel 3). Like its larger-than-life subject, the hour is rambling and unpolished, all that’s left of a grand idea to make The Hawk our Ozzie Osbourne, the main attraction of a wacky reality series.
That plan — indeed, Hawkins’ whole world — was turned upside down when cancer struck. Yet there he was Aug. 19, clutching and grabbing like it was 1959 again.
“If I was six months younger I might give you a shot,” Hawkins purred at the CTV publicist he briefly trapped on his lap. “I need to heal up a little more — those minute-and-a-half marathons are killing me.” (Hawkins’ long-suffering wife Wanda just rolled her eyes.)
As revealed in the special, Hawkins claims a young healer out west named Adam helped him survive what doctors said was terminal cancer. They never met but spoke twice on the phone.
“He’s some kind of a healer,” says Hawkins, who went to several others. “It was like the old girl who got pregnant. When you sit on a hornet’s nest, you don’t know which one stung ya. I don’t know which healer healed me!”
Hawkins lets rip with that dirty, infectious “HawhawHaw haw” laugh. With that big white beard, black Hawk-winged T-shirt, ever-present sunglasses and long white hair, he looks like the original Bad Santa.
Forty-five years ago, The Hawk owned Toronto, holding court at Yonge Street landmark The Coq D’Or. He was “Hot Country” out of Arkansas, learning from blues legends such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters and hanging outside Sun Records where he’d bump into the likes of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and some kid named Elvis.
Toronto was “the promised land,” says Hawkins, who came north in ’58, touring through town in his Rolls Royce.
Back in the ’50s, Hawkins goofed on Anka, brashly telling the teen idol to carry his bags into a hotel. Fifty years later, Anka and Foster threw the biggest party Toronto ever saw for Hawkins, with Clinton the guest of honour.
“Everybody thought I was dying. It’s going to be hard to get them back again,” says Hawkins, who admits he’s “the luckiest booger alive.”
Vowing to give back before “the Good Lord taketh again,” he helped raise $1.5 million in flood relief funds recently for Peterborough.
He was due to rip through a set at the Cadillac Lounge this week after taking a bow behind Gordon Lightfoot on Canadian Idol. “Mighty good for a bar act,” he said.