Ronnie Hawkins hailed from Arkansas, and there he formed the first incarnation of his band, The Hawks, in the mid-1950s. Together, they scored Ronnie’s only US Top 40 hit, a remake of an R&B song about a monetarily-minded lady (I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger…) named “Mary Lou.”
Shortly thereafter, Hawkins emigrated to Canada and lost most of his band in the process. His drummer, fellow Arkansan Levon Helm, decided to stick with him to see if they could replicate in the Polite Provinces some of their recent successes in the Lower 48.
Band members came and went. In early 1960 Hawkins needed a bassist and one arrived in the form of Robbie Robertson. In the summer of 1961, with Robertson having switched over to guitar, Rick Danko took over on bass. The group’s piano player left in the fall of that year and Richard Manuel got the job, followed by organist Garth Hudson a couple of months later.
The Hawks now comprised two Americans and four Canadians, and this lineup remained stable for the next two years, gigging around the Great White North and occasionally recording a few tracks. In 1964, the entire band left Hawkins to strike out on their own, but didn’t find much success over the next year until a certain Bob Dylan hired them as his live backing band. They worked with him for the next two years.
In 1968, the quintet recorded their critically acclaimed debut album and were known forever more as The Band, mainly because that’s how they had referred to themselves for the past couple of years (Q: “Who are you guys?” A: “We’re the band.”).
Ronnie Hawkins never reached the Top 40 again in the US after “Mary Lou,” though he did have a few hits in his adopted home of Canada. He also became a mentor to countless singers and rock groups over the ensuing decades. His greatest fame, however, will always remain as the man who formed The Band.
If you’re a rock history novice and wonder what the big deal is about The Band, you can Google for immediate knowledge, or wait an indeterminate amount of time for me to write about them in fuller detail. Could be next week. Could be next year. Suspense!