He's been called everything from a legend to larger then life. He's played rock and roll music since before it was rock and roll and some of the best rock and roll musicians in the world have been members of his band. He's been friends to everyone from Bill Clinton to John Lennon.
He's watched the kids who came to him as part of his band go on to achieve the fame and fortune that's always eluded him, that he keeps saying is only just around the corner. He has a well-deserved reputation as a hard living partier, but he's been married to Wanda for close to forty years. Anyone who has ever come in contact with him is charmed by his character and warmed by the glow of his heart and his smile.
But in 2002 all that mattered was a malignant lump was found on his pancreas. When it became obvious that surgery wasn't going to be an answer - the lump was intermingled too tightly with a major artery - it was as if he had been sentenced to death. When word leaked out he was dying, no one wanted to believe it; Ronnie Hawkins - "The Hawk" - wasn't supposed to go out like this
Somewhere along the line Ronnie and his long-suffering wife Wanda made the decision to go public with the way in which this affected their lives, and allowed a documentary film crew into their lives for even the most personal of events. (I don't know about anyone else but those hospital blue gowns they give you as a patient are embarrassing enough as it is without being filmed in one.) The result is the highly emotional, and very scatological (this is Ronnie Hawkins we're talking about, remember) documentary Ronnie Hawkins: Still Alive And Kickin' which is now available on DVD.
Since they thought they were documenting the last days of an icon, the DVD gives us a wonderful history of the Rompin' Ronnie. Starting out at Sun Records in Memphis with all the usual suspects — Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and more — Ronnie never quite caught on to the extent the others did. Whether it was because he was always a bit of a rebel or just one of those quirks of fate is impossible to tell fifty years later.
What we do know are the incredible numbers of people who Ronnie has influenced and touched throughout his career. Probably the most famous version of The Hawks, his backup band, was the one playing with him that became better known as The Band: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm, and who achieved far more success then their former boss ever did.