"There I developed my voice by singing with a group that the superintendent's wife had got together". After reform school, he ended up in the state penitentiary and was released at 19. "Then I heard a singer whose name was Sam Cooke. His voice did something to me." For the next ten years or so he drifted in and out of trouble around the country, living in Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Newark.
In the middle of the mid-1960s folk music boom Hawkins set out for California to try for a professional singing career. He recorded several tunes without commercial success, worked at odd jobs, and took up busking along the piers and storefronts of Venice Beach as a way to supplement his income. Hawkins made ends meet by developing a small following of locals and tourists who would come to hear this southern black man, sitting on an overturned milk-crate, play blues and folk standards as well as a few original tunes in his signature open guitar tuning and raspy vocal style. Hawkins claimed the rasp in his voice came from the damage done by years of singing in the sand and spray of the boardwalk. A series of record producers and promoters would "discover" Hawkins over the years, only to be thwarted by circumstance and Hawkins' unconventional approach to life.
The first of these was musicologist and blues producer Bruce Bromberg who approached Hawkins about a recording contract in the early 1970s. Hawkins tentatively agreed and recorded some dozen songs for Bromberg but again got into trouble and spent much of the next decade in jail and addicted to heroin. Bromberg lost contact until 1982, when he re-located Hawkins and got him to agree to release the previously recorded songs as an album, Watch Your Step, which was released on Rounder Records. This debut album was a commercial failure but received rave reviews (notably a rare 5-star rating in Rolling Stone).
Following the release of the album, Hawkins dropped out of sight again for a time, re-uniting with Bromberg in 1985 for a second album, entitled Happy Hour. This album featured more original tunes from Hawkins and was again ignored in the U.S.; however it won acclaim and sales in Europe. Andy Kershaw encouraged Hawkins to come to the United Kingdom, and he moved to Bridlington in 1986 and enjoyed his first taste of real musical success, touring Europe and Asia. He was deported back to the United States, under 'unpalatable' circumstances in 1990, by the British Government. During this period Hawkins stayed largely out of trouble and refined his musical style: a mixture of folk, country, deep southern spirituals, and soul music.
Hawkins' music was informed by but did not resemble blues music (Hawkins himself claimed he could not play the blues because his damaged fretting hand—he wore a leather glove to protect his fingers—would not allow him to bend notes). In 1987, documentary film-maker Nick Shaw approached Hawkins to produce a profile of his life and times. Shaw followed Hawkins closely for the next two years. Eventually, this documentary was taken up by the Arts Council of Great Britain, but has not been released; however, some of this footage was eventually featured in the film "Amazing Grace" produced by David Geffen. Despite his recognition and fame in Europe, Hawkins was restless and moved back to California in the early 1990s and again took on the role of a street performer. Several musicians and promoters encouraged Hawkins to record, but he did so only on occasion and without much enthusiasm, until he agreed to record a full album for Geffen Records and producer Tony Berg.
For this first major-label release, titled The Next Hundred Years, Berg added session musicians to Hawkins' typical solo guitar-and-vocal arrangmements for the first time, and brought national attention and respectable sales to Hawkins (though Hawkins, in typically contrary fashion, claimed to dislike the result, preferring his unaccompanied versions). Hawkins began to tour on the basis of this success, commenting that he had finally reached an age where he was glad to be able to sing indoors, out of the weather, and for an appreciative crowd. Hawkins, however, died of a stroke at the age of 58, just a few months after the release of his breakthrough recording. His widow, Elizabeth Hawkins, sold the rights for a film version of Hawkins' life story. Hawkins is the subject of Mick Thomas's song "57 Years". A concert by Hawkins in Glasgow, Scotland is the event which brings the fictional Graham and Linda together in the novel The Island (2010) by R J Price (better-known as the poet Richard Price). Read more on Last.fm.
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