Hawkins Flies Again

Singer-songwriter Ted Hawkins believed in God--but for many years, Hawkins feared that God didn't believe in him. As he told Westword in late 1994, "One day I looked up and said, 'Whosoever you are up there, I'm talking to you. I'm talking to the maker, the one who made this place and caused me to walk around. Why do you show partiality? So many people that you've helped don't give a tinker's damn about you, but I'm crazy about you. Everywhere I go, I talk about you and tell people how wonderful you are, and you don't seem to give a damn about me.'"

A vengeful deity would have taken umbrage at such impertinence, but not Hawkins's God. No, he was a kind and benevolent master, and he proved it to his willing suppliant. "After that prayer, everything worked," revealed Hawkins, who was 57 when interviewed. "And now I don't have time to hang around and pick flowers like I used to. I've got big things to do. I've got to hurry up."

Hawkins was right: Procrastination was not an option. Although his God had imbued him with exceptional gifts--an ability to capture truth in a mere handful of words, a sublime sense of melody and a voice that was simple but mysterious, commonplace but exalted, down-to-earth but majestic--he had not gotten the opportunity to share them with as large an audience as he deserved. But in 1994 that began to change: An album of his music, The Next Hundred Years, was issued by a music-industry giant, Geffen Records, and critics and listeners responded with delight. However, the God he credited for his good fortune loved Hawkins too well to leave him on earth for long. On January 1, 1995, following the best year of Hawkins's terribly difficult life, he called Ted to his side. Most people who knew and cherished Hawkins's music regarded the timing of the stroke that felled him as unfathomably cruel, but Hawkins likely would have had another opinion. For a God-fearing man, death is something to be embraced, not avoided--and if there was anyone who had earned an eternity in heaven, it was Ted Hawkins.

For those of us left behind, though, Hawkins's loss remains profound, in part because his life's work is so difficult to find. The Next Hundred Years is still obtainable, but several Hawkins full-lengths issued by Rounder Records during the Eighties, including 1982's Watch Your Step and 1986's Happy Hour, are tough to track down, and of the three platters made in the United Kingdom, only 1986's On the Boardwalk: The Venice Beach Tapes was subsequently released in America. As a result, the recent appearance of two posthumous offerings--The Ted Hawkins Suffer No More, on Rhino Records, and The Final Tour, on Evidence--is a godsend. Many CDs that turn up after an artist's demise are sheer exploitation, but not these. They overflow with spirited and moving sounds and help fill a void created the moment after Hawkins drew his last breath.

In his liner notes for the Rhino disc, writer Jimmy Guterman provides a thumbnail sketch of Hawkins's background, but he doesn't truly portray the hell that was so much of this performer's existence. Hawkins was born in 1936 Mississippi to an alcoholic prostitute who was abandoned by the man who impregnated her long before the delivery. He grew up in grinding poverty and eventually wound up in trouble with the law; his mother died of cirrhosis of the liver while he was in stir. By the Sixties, he had a lengthy rap sheet and a couple of failed marriages to his credit--but he also had a burning desire to sing and play guitar. Things seemed to improve after he moved to Southern California in 1966 and hooked up with an independent label. But the imprint's name, Money Records, turned out to be entirely inappropriate: Hawkins won local airplay for "Whole Lot of Women" and "Baby," the two numbers he cut for the firm, but he never received a nickel in royalties. The former tune, which kicks off The Ted Hawkins Story, is a spritely if somewhat generic soul-blues number, but "Baby" is something more--a swooningly lovely ditty in the tradition of Sam Cooke, Hawkins's idol. Clearly, Hawkins had not yet developed a personal style, but his pipes were already glorious.

Unfortunately, Hawkins was unable to cut a followup until 1971, when producer Bruce Bromberg discovered him singing for spare change on Venice Beach. Worse, the tapes that became Watch Your Step were unheard until 1982, when the local renown Hawkins received for his busking convinced Rounder that they were worth putting out. Of the four songs from these sessions that can be heard on Story, the wild soul novelty "Who Got My Natural Comb?" is the most elaborate--Hawkins is supplemented by piano, saxophone and trumpet. But he's at his most compelling when alone with his guitar: "Watch Your Step," "Sorry You're Sick" and "The Lost Ones" are pure, unadorned and so nakedly emotional that you feel like you're eavesdropping.

These qualities ring from the rest of the album. "Cold & Bitter Tears," the finest of the three samples from Happy Hour, is underpinned by a cantering rhythm that adds poignancy to an affecting narrative; "North to Alaska," from the first Boardwalk long-player, displays a depth that might have startled Johnny Horton, who originally sang it; "I Ain't Got Nothing Yet" sports a country arrangement that's unexpectedly apt; and "The Good and the Bad," a Years selection, caps the proceedings with a beauty that's as tangible as Stonehenge. Supplemented with oddities like "You're Beautiful to Me" and "Happy Days," a pair of previously unreleased gems that were made with the financial support of a Mattel toy company executive who took a liking to the singer in 1990, the collection works equally well as an invaluable introduction to Hawkins's world and a stirring reminder of how wonderful a place it was.

The Final Tour is just as enjoyable because it's so unembellished. Hawkins opens up the CD (recorded largely at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, less than two months before he died) with a flourish. "Turn around and tell somebody, 'I'm gonna have a good time tonight,'" he urges during a brief introduction. But the music that follows isn't shake-your-booty stuff. Hawkins draws upon his entire oeuvre, providing forthright renditions of "Sorry You're Sick" and other mournful favorites--and even when he's surveying lighter compositions, like the sly "Revenge of Scorpio," he cannot help but sprinkle them with a certain wariness. He knew all too well that everything that he possessed could be taken away from him at any moment, so he gloried in it all. After wrapping up "A Thing Called Love," the set's concluding tune, he declares, "There's nothing stronger than love"--and coming from a man who saw as much tragedy as he did, the sentiment doesn't sound trite. It seems like the wisdom of the ages.

As modest as he was, Hawkins understood that he had a special talent. "I don't know if it's charisma or what it is," he said back in 1994, "but people stop for me when I'm playing. They'll pass me by and then they'll come back. And sometimes, somebody will be across the street buying something, and they'll look over at me with an irritated look, and the next thing you know, they're right beside me. I don't know what it is, but I've got something that comes from me and grabs people and holds them, whether they like it or not." Which undoubtedly is how Hawkins's God wanted it.


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