‘Discovered’ by Andy Kershaw who brought him to the attention of the British public in the mid-80s, Mississippi-born Ted Hawkins spent much of his early years between reform school, prison and hitching across America, picking up a love of singing and his guitar skills along the way. Heavily influenced by Sam Cook, his soul filtered through folk-blues, Hawkins became a familiar face and raspy voice busking around Venice Beach in the mid 60s. However, problems with the law and heroin meant Hawkins was never able to fulfil the promise that many a producer saw in him. At least not until 1982 when Bruce Bromberg, who had attempted some ill-fated recordings in the 70s, tracked him down and re-recorded several of these for what would become 1982’s Watch Your Step album.
Despite rave reviews. it didn’t sell and Hawkins dropped off the radar again until reunited with Bromberg in 1985 for Happy Hour, the album that, with its mix of country, blues, soul and folk, sparked Kerwshaw’s support and saw Hawkins relocate to England, gaining considerable exposure both on radio and through tours (I was lucky enough to catch him live and he was mesmerising), before being deported back to the States by the UK government in 1990.
Back in California, he returned to busking, eventually persuaded to make his first – and last – major label album, The Next Hundred Years, for Warners in 1994. However, after finally gaining a degree of commercial success and national attention to go with the critical acclaim, he died of a stroke the following year, on New Year’s Day, aged 58.
Since which time he’s become a sadly forgotten figure, so this tribute album serves as a welcome reminder, bringing together a diverse collection of artists to record a selection of Hawkins’ own songs. As such, it’s somewhat stylistically uneven, going from old school country to deep blues in the space of a song and, if we’re being honest, some of Hawkins’ compositions are rather less memorable than others, However, by and large, the choices here stand up and, although the fuller arrangements arguably take away some of the rawness and bared soul quality of the stripped down originals, there’s no quibbles with the performances.
Those involved are a mixed collection of the familiar and obscure, perhaps the best-known being Mary Gauthier who takes on the challenge of Sorry You’re Sick, which, with its ‘want do you want from the liquor store, something sweet or something sour?’ refrain, is one of Hawkins’ most powerful numbers.
Of the other names that will ring a bell, backed by Hammond and banjo, James McMurtry takes on Big Things, Tim Easton tackles One Hundred Miles with an urgent Bo Diddley beat, offers a version of I Gave Up All I Had that’s not far removed from the original and Kasey and Bill Chambers score a standout with the Appalachian-country flavoured Cold And Bitter Tears. Plaudits too for Randy Weeks who, with Eliza Gilkyson on backing vocals, turns in a fine loping twangy I Got What I Wanted.
While Hawkins mostly traded in stained melancholy, he could also be playful, a side shown here by Shinyribs (aka producer Kevin Russell) on the stomping Who Got My Natural Comb, a song about losing his comb with an arrangement that leans heavily on Shake A Tail Feather, and Danny Barnes delivering the bluesy Bad Dog wherein the narrator returns from “you know where” to find his woman’s dog barks at all men except one; and it’s not him!
While the ‘names’ generally provide the stronger moments, kudos should also go to Jon Dee Graham’s gravelly-voiced, lap steel backed Strange Conversation, Steve James with is bare-bones resonator guitar Delta blues reading of Whole Lotta Woman, and a vintage Atlantic soul take on Bring It On Home Daddy by The Damnations. My personal highlight though has to be Houston’s Sunny Sweeney and her crying in my beer honky tonk version of cheating song Happy Hour, though given that, like Brook Benton’s Got What I Wanted, it wasn’t actually written by Hawkins, I can’t understand why there’s no cover of There Stands A Glass, a 1953 hit for Webb Pierce, and easily one of Hawkins’ finest moments (see video below).
As a particularly poignant touch, Hawkins’ widow, Elizabeth, and daughter, Tina-Michelle Fowler come together for the clearly Cooke-influenced 60s country soul Baby while a bonus hidden track features the man himself on a previously unreleased, family-referencing home demo of Merry Christmas.
While the album mostly stands up on its own merits, it will hopefully prompt those who’ve never encountered Ted Hawkins before to check out the original recordings of, as the LA Times obituary put it, “ the greatest singer you’ve never heard”, and those who have to dig out the CDs from the shelves and remind themselves of his shining and very unique talent.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now via Continental Record Services