Dale Hawkins: Singer, songwriter and guitarist best known for his seminal Fifties hit 'Susie-Q'
Wednesday 17 February 2010
As with "Bo Diddley", "What'd I Say" and "Johnny B. Goode", Dale Hawkins' 1957 record, "Susie-Q" contained an explosive riff which became one of the cornerstones of the new rock'n'roll music. It is still familiar, and it could be argued that John Fogerty wrote several variations for Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Dale Hawkins was born on 22 August 1936 on his grandfather's cotton farm in Goldmine, Louisiana. He was a first cousin to another rock'n'roll singer, Ronnie Hawkins, although they developed their careers independently. "We had very little money," Hawkins told me in 2007, "and the doctor changed $12 for bringing me into the world. My grandfather paid him off at $2 a month."
Hawkins' parents divorced when he was three, and his father became a touring musician, albeit briefly, with the Sons of the Pioneers. By the time he was nine, Hawkins was delivering newspapers and shining shoes so that he would have enough for a $10 guitar. Hawkins joined the Navy on his 15th birthday and served on a destroyer in Korea. When invalided out, he joined his mother, who had moved to Shreveport, Louisiana. He worked in a record store by day and played clubs at night.
In 1956, Hawkins was impressed with Bobby Charles' record, "See You Later, Alligator". He wrote a follow-up, "See You Soon, Baboon" and Stan Lewis, who owned the record store, recommended Hawkins to his friend Leonard Chess, of Chess Records of Chicago. The single did little business, but Hawkins had written "Susie-Q", which had been the name of a dance in the early 1940s. The record began, unusually, with a cowbell and a drum, then his friend, 15-year-old James Burton came in, delivering bursts of wild guitar. It was topped by Dale Hawkins' atmospheric vocal and the result was unlike any other record around.
Leonard Chess was unsure of its potential and a disc jockey told Hawkins to send it to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. Wexler loved it and told Chess to either "shit or get off the pot." Chess released "Susie-Q" and it became a hit. When Hawkins followed "Susie-Q" with "La-Do-Dada", Dean and Mark Mathis, who became the Newbeats, sang harmonies. "James Burton had left me then for a job with Bob Luman and I got Joe Osborn for that record. He ended up playing on over 250 Top 10 records, and I was selling fish bait to get by."
Hawkins cut an excellent version of Little Walter's "My Babe", this time with another fledgling guitarist, Roy Buchanan, and a British pop song, "A House, A Car And A Wedding Ring". He worked on teenage pop shows and he showed Buddy Holly how to give "Maybe Baby" a New Orleans feel.
However, it is for "Susie-Q" that he will be remembered. Over the years there have been many versions of the song. "I still like mine the best," said Hawkins, "but Lonnie Mack's is very good and José Feliciano's is very different. I like Creedence's of course, but the most disappointing version is by the Rolling Stones. They didn't get the feel of the song at all."
When Hawkins' wife was pregnant he came off the road and ran a label, Abnak, in Dallas. He had seen what to do at Chess and he had success with the Uniques, John Fred, Bruce Channel and especially the Five Americans, who took "Western Union" into the US Top 10 in 1967. Hawkins returned to his own career with the album, L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas (1969).
After becoming indoctrinated in the Los Angeles lifestyle, Hawkins went into drug rehab in Little Rock and stayed on to manage a Crisis Centre. He released the albums Wildcat Tamer (1999) and Back Down To Louisiana (2007), on which he worked with his son Jeff and Joe Osborn. When I met him in 2007, he was writing and producing for the Irish tenor, Red Hurley.
Delmar Allen Hawkins Jr, musician: born Goldmine, Louisiana 22 August 1936; married three times (two sons); died Little Rock, Arkansas 13 February 2010.
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