OBITUARY: Ted Hawkins
Friday 13 January 1995
While stars of pop and rock still desperately search for that elusive quality, street credibility, the singer and guitarist Ted Hawkins was a genuine product of American street culture. The bluesman had many opportunities to create a big-time career for himself. Encouraged by those who appreciated his talents, he was often propelled into the spotlight, but he always returned to his roots and seemed happiest playing for dimes in the street.
Hawkins achieved cult status among fans around the world, but was usually to be found playing guitar and singing, while sitting on a milk-crate, entertaining passers-by in Santa Monica, California. He was often rescued from this fate over the years, by enthusiastic record producers and even by the BBC's roving reporter Andy Kershaw, who championed his cause in Britain. However Hawkins seemed torn between the promise of artistic success and the lure of a delinquent life style.
Only last year the DCG label released his first major album, The Next 100 Years, which was well received and gained him an international reputation.
Ted Hawkins came from Lakeshore, Mississippi, where he took up playing the guitar at the age of 12. He was sent to a reform school for some early misdemeanour, and was encouraged to follow a musical career after a visit to the school by Professor Longhair, a New Orleans piano player. Unfortunately Hawkins had another brush with the law, was convicted of stealing and sent to Parchman Farm, a state penitentiary celebrated in song by Mose Allison.
On release from jail he picked up on the latest records by the up-and-coming soul singer Sam Cooke, who proved an inspiration. Hawkins spent the next few years working as a travelling musician around the eastern United States before arriving in Los Angeles in the late Sixties. He was heard performing in the black ghetto by Bill Harris, a radio DJ, who brought him to the attention of the record producer Bruce Bromberg. He cut two albums for the Rounder label, which featured both original songs and coversof other artists' material, including John Fogerty's ``Long as I can See the Light.''
Hawkins's own writing and gritty vocal delivery was regarded as unique, wholly American in its style and approach, although it could not be simply compartmentalised as folk or blues. His producer stated that he saw him closer to an artist like Bill Withers than more traditional folk singers.
Hawkins' Bromberg-produced album Watch Your Step was not released until 1982, by which time the singer had vanished from the scene. It transpired he was back in prison. He was rescued to record another album for Rounder, Happy Hour, released in 1986. Both LPs were re-issued on CD last year.
Throughout most of the Eighties Hawkins sang on the ocean-front boardwalk in Venice, California, where he entertained the tourists, few of whom realised he was a celebrated recording artist. He was tracked down by Andy Kershaw, who visited him at his home and encouraged him to come to Britain, where he showed up in 1986. During a few years' stay in London he frequently played at the Mean Fiddler, Harlesden, visited Ireland and even performed at the Montreux Festival, Switzerland. Material he recorded for the BBC is due to be released on the Strange Fruit label.
Hawkins returned to Los Angeles, where he was again spotted by A&R men and signed to DGC. The subsequent album, The Next 100 Years, was a surprise Top Twenty hit in Australia, where Hawkins was invited to tour. He was planning another trip to Australia at the time of his death and had been expected to play at several leading American jazz and blues festivals. His career had finally seemed set to blossom, when he suffered a stroke on 29 December, from which he never recovered
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