Ronnie Hawkins was born in Huntsville, Arkansas, on January 10, 1935, two days after Elvis Presley
was born. His mother was a teacher and his father was a barber. The family moved to nearby Fayetteville,
Arkansas, when Ronnie was nine years old.
During high school, Ronnie served in the National Guard, which was mandatory for all at
that time, yet he still had time to dabble in his first love: music. He knew music was his
life when the unapproachable girls swooned for his singing. When he graduated from high school,
he enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, majoring in physical education. It was
there that he formed his first band, The Hawks, and toured with them regionally in Arkansas, Oklahoma
After attending college, Ronnie joined the Army and served six months of active duty. He attended
basic training at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, for three months and was then moved to Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
This was his home for the next three months where he went into special services. During this time,
Ronnie continued pursuing his passion for music, often performing for Officers' Clubs. He eventually
heard from other musicians about a man named A.C. Reed. It was Reed that took a young, naive Ronnie
under his wing with his band, The Black Hawks.
After the Army, Ronnie received a phone call from Memphis and was offered $100/week to
front a band of musicians at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios. He bragged to everyone at home about
this and left for Memphis. But, by the time he got there, the band had broken up. According to
the union then, the leader of the band made twice the money than the rest of the band, and the
members couldn't agree on who would be the leader. After bragging so much back home, Ronnie was
afraid to return to Fayetteville.
He heard that one of the most respected guitarists at the time, Jimmy Ray Paulman, wanted to put
a band together, and Ronnie was happy to join. Paulman's first cousin, Will 'Pop' Jones, played piano
in the band, and he knew of a kid from Marvell, Arkansas, who sang and played guitar at several local
county and state fairs. His name was Levon Helm. Even though he wasn't a drummer, Levon stated that he
had always wanted to try the drums. Now the band had a drummer. They played regionally until Levon
graduated from high school.
One of the venues they performed at was the Rockwood Club in Fayetteville, which Ronnie owned and
operated. Musicians who played there included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and a
fellow named Harold Jenkins (whom eventually became famous as Conway Twitty). Harold told Ronnie
that Canada was the promised land for a rock 'n' roll singer. So Ronnie took his band to Canada,
touring along the way and busting club records everywhere.
Ronnie's fame grew quickly. Morris Levy, from New York, signed Ronnie to Roulette Records,
The Hawk's label from 1959 to 1964. During this time, the members of The Hawks were constantly
changing. From the original four (Ronnie, Paulman, Jones and Helm), they added bassist Jimmy Evans
for a few tours. One night when The Hawks were playing in Wildwood, New Jersey, Ronnie went to see
his cousin Dale Hawkins' band. Dale's guitarist was Fred Carter, Jr., who had a big reputation as a
great blues and rock 'n' roll picker. Ronnie thought Carter was the best guitarist he'd ever seen
and offered him a job. Carter accepted and joined The Hawks. Shortly thereafter, Jimmy Ray Paulman
and Jimmy Evans left the band and Ronnie brought in a young fan named Robbie Robertson, who started
on bass guitar and went on to play rhythm guitar. Soon Will 'Pop' Jones left as well, and Ronnie
hired a 17-year-old piano player named Stan Szelest, whom Ronnie thought was the best keyboard
player on the planet.
Eventually Fred Carter, Jr., left the band and Ronnie brought in Roy Buchanan to play
lead guitar. Robbie Robertson, who had been under the tutelage of Carter, began studying
Buchanan's guitar playing and eventually became the lead guitar player when Buchanan left
the band. Stan Szelest decided to leave as well, deciding to go back to school in Buffalo
and get married. Ronnie's tradition of hiring great Canadian musicians took firm hold. Richard
Manuel, of the Rockin' Revols (a band Ronnie had booked at the Rockwood Club), became a Hawk.