Ronnie Hawkins’ Roulette Sessions

Ronnie Hawkins, born in 1935, was the rock 'n' roll pride of Arkansas in the '50s when, at the suggestion of fellow Arkansan Conway Twitty, he moved to Canada, where there was a thriving rockabilly scene. From Hamilton, Ontario, Hawkins successfully toured and recorded in both his adoptive country and his native USA. "There were three guys in those days who would really knock you out, " recalls Sun rockabilly artist Sonny Burgess, "Elvis, Jerry Lee and Ronnie Hawkins." Two of Hawkins' classic albums, Mojo Man and Arkansas Rock Pile, both culled from 1959-63 sessions in Nashville and New York, will be reissued on Collectors' Choice Music on April 29, 2008. Pop historian Gene Sculatti, author of The Catalog of Cool, wrote the liner notes.

Hawkins was equally known for his band, The Hawks, which started back home in Arkansas with drummer Levon Helm but gained its core membership in Canada with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. (In later years, The Hawks went on to become Bob Dylan's band and later The Band.)

The Collectors' Choice twofer contains two long-out-of-print albums, featuring 23 tracks from the early sessions. While information on the Roulette label is always a bit spotty, the label appears to have released Mojo Man in 1967 in Canada only, and released Arkansas Rock Pile in 1970 in the U.K. only.

Mojo Man culls most of its material from other artists and writers, but Hawkins leaves his own mark on each song. Teaming The Hawks with saxophone legend King Curtis, Hawkins turns "Suzy Q, " originated in 1957 by his cousin Dale Hawkins, into a rave-up. Carl Perkins' "Matchbox" is re-imagined with an R&B bar-band feel and a scorching Robbie Robertson guitar solo. Other highlights include Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Farther Up The Road" and "What a Party, " a re-titled cover of Muddy Waters' "She's 19 Years Old." Two other covers, Hank Williams' "Your Cheating Heart" and George Gershwin's "Summertime, " hail from two different Nashville sessions in 1960 and feature, instead of The Hawks, Floyd Cramer, piano; Harold Bradley, guitar; and Bob Moore, bass.

In Arkansas Rock Pile, Hawkins pays further homage to his fellow originators of rock 'n' roll. The album contains wild treatments of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" (featuring furious guitar work by Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel's pumpin' piano) plus Bo's eponymous "Bo Diddley"; Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days, " re-cast as "Forty Days"; Billy Lee Riley's wild rockabilly anthem "My Gal is Red Hot"; and Larry Williams' "Dizzy Miss Lizzy." Also included are the mid-tempo blues "Come Love" (with Helm, Danko and Robertson and a chorus likely containing Dionne and DeeDee Warwick) and Hawkins' own Lieber & Stoller-produced "Arkansas, " which name checks "Mary Lou, Odessa and Runaround Sue." On "Arkansas, " Helm, Robertson and Manuel are joined by blues harmonica giant Sonny Terry.

Fresh from his Roulette years (1959-67), Hawkins went to Atlantic's Cotillion label, where he had a hit with "Down in the Alley, " featuring Duane Allman and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. He continues to gig, as he puts it, "wherever there are rock 'n' rollers. That's what we've been doing for more than 40 years. It's made me everything from an honorary mayor to an honorary member of a motorcycle gang."

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