Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Still 'Q'-ed Up

Rockabilly hipster Dale Hawkins returns

By Ted Drozdowski

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Dale Hawkins's first hit launched two of the greatest careers in rootsy American rock. But not without a left-field nudge from famed record producer Jerry Wexler. In 1958, Hawkins had recorded a single for Leonard Chess's Checker label. "Leonard had sat on the tape three or four months. We sent it to Jerry at Atlantic, and Jerry called back to say, 'I love it, it's a smash.' " Then he gave Hawkins a message for Chess that Hawkins still asks not be repeated verbatim. So let's just say Wexler told Chess to excrete or "get off the pot."

Wexler's scatological directive registered, and a few days later "Suzie Q" was on the streets. "They had to break the record market-by-market, though," explains Hawkins, who makes a rare club appearance at Johnny D's next Thursday. "People thought I was black. It was kind of unusual for a white artist to be walking down the middle of the street back then. But that's how I grew up: listening to blues and country music. I was the first white artist to play the Apollo Theater."

Exactly 10 years later, Hawkins was already into his own second career -- as a producer -- when "Suzie Q" become Creedence Clearwater Revival's debut hit, igniting the star of that group's leader, John Fogerty. It's the Creedence version most people are probably familiar with today, but the song's distinctive guitar lick -- developed by Hawkins's then-bandmate James Burton -- and swooning lyrics were born, like Hawkins himself, from rural Louisiana's cultural melting pot.

A vigorous blend of blues and country -- set firm by a childhood spent listening to the music of Lonnie Johnson and Hank Williams, of T-Bone Walker and Bill Monroe -- is still Hawkins's calling card. His new album, Wildcat Tamer, due out on a major label early next year, features the B.B. King-style guitar fireworks of "Hat Trick," the raving rockabilly of the title cut, the Chuck Berry-isms of "Home-Grown Natural Man," and plenty of slide. Mostly the CD's powered up by Hawkins's down-home howl, whether he's crooning like a lost coyote through one of its ballads or slurring and howling like a Saturday-night cowboy on "Boogie Woogie Country Girl." What's shocking is how little his voice has changed since he cut his last album, 28 years ago.

During his late-'50s heyday as an artist, Hawkins had five hits. Besides "Suzie Q," the best-known is "La-Do-Dada." Then in the early '60s he started making hits for others. "My wife got pregnant with my first boy and I decided I gotta come in from the road," he explains from his Little Rock home. "I started producing a group called the Uniques." Within a few years he had scored number ones with Bruce Channel ("Hey! Baby") and John Fred ("Lucy in Disguise (With Glasses)") and a string of charters with the Five Americans.

Hawkins moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with Mike Nesmith and Harry Nilsson -- and developed an addiction to prescription amphetamines. "With everything I was taking being legal and from a doctor, I never thought I'd become hooked," he recounts.

In the mid '70s he left RCA, where he was a house producer, and headed back South. It took him several years to pull out of addiction. Then, inspired by his experience, he got counseling degrees and established a crisis/suicide-prevention center for teenagers in his adopted home of Little Rock.

Hawkins continued to play occasional oldies tours and European gigs. Four years ago, however, he had a revelation. "I decided what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was write, sing, and record. I didn't want to produce anybody ever again. But I wanted to make my own music."

So three years ago he built a studio, where he recorded his forthcoming album. Then his intention to avoid producing was scuttled when he was passed a demo tape of Memphis guitarist/singer Kenny Brown. "I drove around with it for two days trying to decide, but Kenny was one of the best guitar pickers I ever heard. And he had songs on his tape like 'Frankie & Albert,' which was a pre-blues tune passed down through generations that 'Frankie & Johnny' came from. It was so deep." Hawkins also appreciated Brown's musical connections to the Burnside and Kimbrough blues families of north Mississippi. "They were isolated in that part of Mississippi, so the music's very distinct. Kenny has been playing with those guys from the git-go, and that really comes across."

Brown, whose Hawkins-produced Goin' Back to Mississippi (Plum Tone) was released last year, will also be part of Hawkins's band on this October tour -- Hawkins's first string of Northeastern club dates in 38 years.

Why hit the trenches again at age 60? "It's just me, I guess," Hawkins says. "I love it, to tell you the truth."

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