When Dale Hawkins last recorded an album, Richard Nixon was in the White House, Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, Levi Strauss began marketing bell-bottom jeans, the frenetic “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” was the place to be on Monday nights and they were half-a-million strong at Woodstock.
Thirty years is a long, long time.
What happened to the Louisiana-born rockabilly pioneer who wrote and sang “Susie Q” in 1957 at age 19, signed to the predominantly black label Chess, and was the first white artist to play the Apollo Theater in New York?
He has been waging the battle of his life.
On April 20, Hawkins capped a triumphant return to the music business with the release of “Wildcat Tamer” (Mystic Music), his first album since 1969. At age 61, he still possesses the raw and edgy vocal and guitar chops that inspired several generations of rockers, from the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Brian Setzer.
Hawkins is just thankful for making it this far.
“In 1981, I had a decision to make: Are you going to live or die?” he said recently. “I had, over the years, become addicted to amphetamines. When I started out in 1954 or 1955, nobody knew it was wrong; everybody thought it was okay, because it was legal. Everything I got easy, I had never done street drugs in my life. All of a sudden, it got to where I could hardly function without them, and so I left the (West Coast) and came back to Louisiana. Even though I left the good money as a producer, I left to save myself. It was a blessing, because I finally realized I had a problem.
“I went through probably the toughest rehab program that’s ever been existence. You had to live-in and it was a yearlong program. Only 2 percent of the people who start finish it. In this program, you start off as a child again. You have to earn your privileges, even to walk across the floor.
“If I hadn’t completed the program, I don’t think I would’ve made it through the rest of my life. I took the amphetamines for 17 years, and to quit taking that all at one time, your body goes through changes you wouldn’t believe. It was tough.”
Hawkins conquered his addiction and was so re-energized, he became an assistant coordinator for the rehab program after six weeks. Two months later, he said, he was head coordinator and later helped open a teen suicide prevention center.
About four years ago, he began thinking again about music. He started buying equipment, one piece at a time, put a studio together and worked on what became the basics of “Wildcat Tamer,” including a remake of “Susie Q.”
“I got to know myself,” Hawkins said. “It was a challenge, in a way, to me. I’ve always been a competitive-type person in the first place, because of the maverick I am, but I was never much of a conformist as far as the way everybody just did things.”
Hawkins has been going against the grain since the mid-1950s when he signed with the R&B label Chess and recorded for its Checker subsidiary. He wrote the lyrics for “Susie Q” and James Burton, who performed on Ricky Nelson’s early hits, created that often-imitated country-blues instrumental riff; they recorded it at KWKH radio in Shreveport, La., in 1957.
“Even though the song only went to something like No. 27 on the (Billboard) chart,” Hawkins said, “the record sold madly because they had to break it market by market. They couldn’t break it in all the markets at the same time, due to the fact it was an R&B label. It just took longer to get it done.”
Hawkins and his band toured the country with R&B package shows, appearing in such theaters as the Apollo, Uptown and Paramount. Because rockers were rarely seen on television in those days, black audiences were surprised to learn Hawkins was white.
“I like to tell people a story about being in Philadelphia,” he said. “They took me to a radio station, and this black DJ starts laughing the minute I walked in. Anyway, after we both get up off the floor from laughing, he interviews me on the air and I take phone calls about how much they really enjoy my music but I need to work on my diction. It was just too funny.”
Several hits followed – “La-Do-Dada,” “A House, a Car and a Wedding Ring,” “Yea – Yea (Class Cutter)” – but the well ran dry as the 1960s approached. Hawkins bounced from label to label before becoming a producer. His credits include Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Five Americans’ “Western Union,” Michael Nesmith’s “Joanne,” the Uniques’ “Not Too Long Ago” and Jon & Robin’s “Do It Again a Little Bit Slower.”
His name resurfaced in 1967 when the Golliwogs, after flopping earlier with Fantasy Records, cut a lengthy demo version of “Susie Q.” New Fantasy owner Saul Zaentz loved it, John Fogerty and his band mates changed their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival and, in 1968, they had their first national hit. The song sold more than 1 million copies, but Hawkins said he never saw a dime.
“I think what they did was great, I think it’s damn good, and I’m really glad (Fogerty) cut it,” he said, “but I have never received any money for writing ‘Susie Q.’ I’m hoping we’ll see a change in that real soon (A lawsuit is pending against his former publishing company). I didn’t even start to get my BMI until later years, like after 1983 or ’84.
“I had people I signed things over to, being underage in the ’50s and following what my manager told me to do. I didn’t care. When you’re that age, you just want to be liked and respected for something.”
That was then, this is 1999. Hawkins, already a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, was inducted into the Louisiana Hall of Fame on April 11, he was a featured performer at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 25 and he’s gearing up for a national tour in support of “Wildcat Tamer.”
“I just hoped people would still like what I try to do,” he said. “I had no idea whether they would or wouldn’t or if they would even remember me. It’s such a good feeling that they still do and to feel appreciated for what you contributed to the business.”
UPDATE: Hawkins died of colon cancer on Feb. 13, 2010. He was 73.
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