Say That You'll Be True
Many an artist has enjoyed an entire career -- and a lifelong income -- from the lasting appeal of one smash, a single tune that somehow buried itself in the minds of listeners like a fiddler crab tunneling into sand.
Unfortunately for Dale Hawkins, he's not one of those artists -- despite the popularity of his song "Susie Q." A instant hit upon its release in 1957, it's a seminal rock tune that features one of the most recognizable guitar licks in rock history (executed by James Burton, who went on to become one of rock's first superstar players). The riff was further embedded into American pop culture when "Susie Q" became a hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival, which placed the song on its debut release in 1968.
"You just couldn't stop that song," says Hawkins, now 63, from his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. Someone did figure out, however, how to stop the checks from heading in his direction. "I never saw any money from [the song]," Hawkins says with a calmness, the kind you might not expect from an artist who's due more than three decades' worth of royalty payments for one of the most familiar songs in American rock-and-roll history.
The calmness might be due to the fact that he's kept busy, and earned a few bucks for his musical efforts, along the way. After his performing career ended in the early '60s, Hawkins went on to have a hand in producing or co-producing a number of pop-charters, including the Five Americans' "Western Union" and Harry Nilsson's version of "Everybody's Talkin'," which appeared on the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy. He has survived an addiction to prescription drugs (and various health maladies resulting from his addictions), launched a teen crisis center in Little Rock and returned to creating his own music. He has also continued to enjoy hearty respect among those who remember him for his earlier creations. ("Most of the people in the business still remember me," Hawkins notes, "because we plowed some rows, man.") That crowd is now spinning Hawkins's current release, Wildcat Tamer. The disc -- his first batch of new material in thirty years -- shows that he is still capable of writing the kind of songs that made him famous years ago.
Hopefully, he'll be paid better this time around than he was for "Suzy Q." Back in 1956, Hawkins says, he and his mates had been performing the song for about three months in the bars of Shreveport, Louisiana, near his home in Goldmine. Hawkins, Burton and their accomplices paid a local radio station $25 to let them record the song in the station's studio, during early-morning downtime. The song began with a clanging cowbell call to arms, followed by Burton's lurching riff and Hawkins's simple lyrics of love and faithfulness. The result was a dangerous little number whose spooky feel and across-the-grain guitar breaks countered its honest sentiments and plea for fidelity.
Hawkins shipped the song to Leonard Chess of the Chess label, which had already released a record by one of Hawkins's peers. Chess sat on the cut for several months, Hawkins says, and released it after Atlantic Record's Jerry Wexler informed Hawkins that he'd release the record if Chess wouldn't. Chess put the cut out on its Checker label, and it became an instant big seller.
Despite its appeal over the years, however, Hawkins says he never received a dime for the tune during its dual heydays in the '50s and '60s. "I really don't know how it happened," Hawkins says, "I wasn't educated in the business." One explanation for the shorting, Hawkins says, is the fact that the original publishing paperwork he filled out in 1956 was doctored. A pair of names -- Stanley J. Lewis and Eleanor Broadwater -- were added to Hawkins's on the publishing sheet without his knowledge, effectively splitting the authorship of the song into thirds. Neither had anything to do with the song's creation, Hawkins points out: Lewis was a record-store owner in Shreveport who carried Chess imprints; Broadwater was the wife of a popular Nashville deejay, Gene Nobles, to whom Chess owed favors.
At the urging of his children and with the help of his current manager, Jimmy Ford, Hawkins is currently fighting to claim the money he is due. "People have been ignoring him for a long time," Ford says, "and we're trying to sort it all out. And I'm just now finding out new things about this song -- things show up on the Internet, in his shoebox." Though he did begin receiving some royalty money after MCA purchased the Chess catalogue in 1985, decades of lost dividends remain unaccounted for.
So, just how much money is he owed?
"I don't have the faintest idea," Hawkins admits, "but I don't believe that they could pay it." Not that he's sweating it. "Whatever happens, happens. You know, you can't miss what you never had."
Hawkins's latest record reveals that he has certainly always had a knack for primal rock and roll. Wildcat Tamer is a nappy skin-and-bones collection that's full of the same steamy sound that Hawkins created years ago -- a stew of bayou blues, country and rockabilly. At its ragged best, the release calls to mind Howlin' Wolf, Hasil Adkins, T-Model Ford, Ronnie Dawson and every other Dixie madman who sacrificed his demons with a handful of chords and six steel strings. Highlights include the hillbilly juke of the title tune, the rollicking country of "Natural Man" and the greasy, Southern Culture on the Skids grind of "Change Game." More contemporary-sounding numbers include the loose-limbed, countrified version of Leadbelly's "Irene," the heartfelt Jerry Lee Lewis-styled country of "Summertime Down South," and a new take on "Susie Q." The collection also sports a charming, couple-of-beers-under-the-belt feel -- another Hawkins trademark -- that's at odds with the slick recordings he has produced for other artists.
"That's what I'm known for doing -- that's just me," Hawkins says, "and to change that now, I don't see any need to do that. It's like taking John Lee Hooker and telling him, 'Don't play that how-how-how stuff.' That's gonna be there. The masters are not your historians, who write what somebody else told them to write." Wildcat Tamer was recorded in Hawkins's own studio, he says, and its rawness can also be explained by the fact that "the record was basically an accident. I had these guys over that had never been in a studio and was just trying to show 'em how to work in it."
This weekend, Hawkins will be performing in Denver following a screening of filmmaker Robert Mugge's documentary Rhythm 'n' Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music. The film (part of the Denver International Film Festival) looks at some of Louisiana's lesser-known artists and forms of music. Hawkins appears in the film, performing a version of (what else?) "Susie Q." Mugge, whose list of music documentaries includes Cool Runnings, The Gospel According to Al Green and 1999's Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, seeks to document Louisiana music that often gets ignored.
"Usually, when people go there to make a film, they focus on a handful of New Orleans superstars," Mugge says. "Dr. John, Alan Toussaint and the Neville Brothers. But there's just so much more than that. I think [Hawkins] is a good one to immediately demonstrate that Louisiana music isn't just what everybody thinks it is. Plus, I have so much fun watching him play that he was my first choice for having someone play after the screening of the film.
"He's part of that first generation of rock-and-roll veterans," Mugge adds, "and to me he's still the essence of cool. And if you watch the sequence with him in the film, he and his guys still evoke that era and that sense of youthful cool. You watch him perform, and it's like seeing one of those guys with his gang from 45 years ago. More than anybody I can think of from that era, Dale has still got it."
"In that movie," he notes with a knowing chuckle, "we really kicked it."
In the next few months, Hawkins will be kicking it with the members of Wilco, who will back him for his next release; recording is set to begin in December. In the meantime, he'll keep laying down tracks in his studio, fleshing out the next decade of his career. "You gotta do what you gotta do," Hawkins says, "and I'm doing it because I want to. To live under so many lies as I've had to live under, you'll never know how it tore me up for so many years. But the funny thing about now is that they seem to all be going away and I seem to be coming up."
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