Tragedy has often been a creative source for musicians, but there can’t be many who had a harder or more challenging life than the late, great Ted Hawkins. Born into utter poverty in Lakeshore, Mississippi to a father that left the family after Ted was born, as he had wanted a daughter not a son, and to a drug and booze addicted prostitute of a mother, the young Theodore was familiar with jail cells at the age of 8. Amazingly, aged 12, whilst in a reform school, Professor Longhair visited the school and taught Ted his first song. He was now hooked on music and for years dove-tailed between bouts of incarceration, mostly for stealing for food and singing on the streets. He also happened to have the voice of an angel.
In 1982, he managed to get a record deal with Rounder Records, who released ‘Watch Your Step’ whilst he was in jail and Rolling Stone gave it a 5 star review. From then on he never saw the inside of a cell again. One of his earliest supporters was Jonathan Richman, who managed to get him a four night residency at a club in Orange County. Apparently those four performances were truly historic and on stage Hawkins appeared to be transported to a different place, as he sang with the most remarkable soul, voice reminiscent of a young Sam Cooke.
Airplay from John Peel and then Andy Kershaw saw UK interest blossom and Kershaw managed to get him a UK tour and he became an instant hit. Always adorned on stage with a leather glove on one hand and sitting astride a plastic crate, he mesmerised audiences across the country and moved to Bridlington to live. Sadly he had to leave the UK soon after and was forced to go back to street performing at his beloved Venice boardwalk patch. Some years later Michael Penn became entranced by his music and managed to persuade Geffen label boss Tony Berg to sign him for the astonishing album ‘The Next Hundred Years’ in 1994. Just a few months after the release, which had garnered universally glowing reviews, he passed away, having suffered a stroke. I’ll never forget first listening to that album and specifically the closer – his mesmeric version of John Fogerty’s ‘Long As I Can See The Light’ – a track that to this day always almost brings me to tears, such is it’s emotional impact. His recorded output was slim, but another great later release was ‘Nowhere To Run’ with a band fronted by the excellent Michael Messer.
This clip comes from a fantastic documentary, made by film maker Janice Engel in 1996, ‘Amazing Grace’, which included rare live footage, as well as commentary by Harry Belafonte. This clip of the song ‘Green Eyed Girl’, features Tony Berg enthusing as to how amazing a life performer Hawkins was and why he was such an important musician.. His Rhino ‘Best of’ CD was entitled ‘Suffer No More’ – sad but true.