Ted Hawkins, age 57, has lived one hell of a life--and he's not finished yet. If Robert Johnson hadn't cashed in his chips at so young an age, his tale might have sounded a lot like this one.

It's a story that, understandably, Hawkins doesn't much like telling. After decades of struggle, he's finally earning some attention: The Next Hundred Years, a sad, beautiful disc released earlier this year by Geffen Records, has received rapturous notices from the nation's critics. But when these scribes sit down to chat with Hawkins, they can't help but ask about the trouble he's seen. And right now, Hawkins, a gifted and soulful singer, songwriter and musical interpreter, has other mountains to climb.

"You see, my past is not so pretty--there's nothing pretty about my past nowhere," he says. "So talking about certain things kind of upsets me. Because it's not only heartbreaking. It's a waste of time. I don't have that much time left on earth, so I want to get on with my life. And I feel that to talk about certain things stops me in my tracks and causes people to look down their noses at me."

This last assertion couldn't be further from the truth. Anyone who's survived such a tumultuous existence, no matter how many misdeeds he may have committed along the way, deserves acknowledgment. That Hawkins also managed to produce so much beautiful music in the process is nothing short of astounding.

"As far as I can remember back, I was always at my lowest ebb," Hawkins claims, and his background bears out this seemingly hyperbolic statement. Hawkins was born in 1936 in Lakeshore, Mississippi, a tiny burg where poverty was the order of the day. Even in this environment, however, Hawkins's circumstances stood out. His father was gone by the time of his birth (the only thing he left Ted was his name), and his mother was a prostitute and an alcoholic. He suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of both men and women throughout his childhood and left school for good after a teacher told him to return home and clean himself up. "I don't have no education, but I did teach myself to read and write a little bit," he says. "I'm still not that good at counting and things like that. I can't do much with fractions or algebra."

By twelve young Ted was in reform school; three years later, after stealing a black leather motorcycle jacket, he was sentenced to the state penitentiary at Parchman, Mississippi. Upon his release, he learned that his mother had died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Hawkins's luck with other women, during a period when he hitchhiked throughout the northeastern U.S., wasn't much better. He married a woman he met in a Buffalo, New York, church choir, but the match was annulled when his bride's mother objected to it. He subsequently met and wed another woman in Geneva, New York, but she died of cancer two months later. He inherited just enough money from her estate to buy a train ticket to Los Angeles, a destination chosen because he was sick of the cold.

Upon his arrival in Southern California in 1966, Hawkins bought a guitar and decided to make a go of a singing career. His model was gospel-singer-turned-pop-star Sam Cooke. "I believe Sam Cooke's spirit is within me," Hawkins insists. "He's been a real inspiration. Him and Otis Redding--and Elvis Presley, too. Have you ever heard `Viva, Las Vegas'? My God, man, that guy sang that thing. I saw it at the movies, and when that man fell on one knee, it was too much."

At first, Hawkins's foray into music seemed promising. On the advice of a local disc jockey, he wrote his first song, entitled "Baby," and eventually cut the track for a now-defunct label. The recording got plenty of local airplay, but when Hawkins went to the company headquarters to pick up his royalties, he discovered that he'd been scammed. Wounded by this disappointment, Hawkins began to drift between street performances and jail, the latter for mainly petty crimes he refuses to elaborate upon: "People seem to get their jollies off talking about prison and things like that--talking about why I did this or that. But I'm not going to rehash all of that."

He survived this period, he believes, because of his wife, Elizabeth, whom he married shortly after arriving in L.A. "She's a Cherokee Indian," he says, "and those people love hard. Once you become involved with them, they're there to stay. They're cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die. When I'd throw up my hands and say, `I might as well quit,' she'd give me so many reasons why I ought to carry on that I just had to do it."

In the early Seventies Hawkins recorded a number of songs with producer Bruce Bromberg, but no release date was set. Frustrated, Hawkins took his music to Venice Beach, where he became known for performances he held on the boardwalk while sitting on a milk crate. "I still have that same crate," he reveals. "You can take the hog out of the hog pen, but he's still a hog. I don't want to forget that I'm still a hog. It keeps me humble."

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