When Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw visited Rounder Records in New York in the mid-80s, he was looking for roots samplers to try out in his evening radio show. He certainly wasn’t expecting to stumble upon a great, seemingly undiscovered, singer-songwriter. But pulling out an old album, first recorded back in 1971, that’s exactly what he found. The album in question was Watch Your Step by Ted Hawkins. The unremarkable sleeve, a middle-aged bearded black man strumming a guitar in a concrete courtyard, held a remarkable record by quite a remarkable talent.
Watch Your Step
Every song on the album was self-penned, taking in a range of styles and influences, from soul to country to folk and several points between. They sound familiar, the first impression being that you must be listening to an album of cover versions. But what really hits you is the voice. Deep, mellifluous and rasping – its soft notes lull you but its emotional peaks are almost primal. They punch through your chest and grab hold of your insides and then gently put them back in their proper place.
Kershaw couldn’t wait to get into the studio and share his discovery with the Radio 1 audience. The reaction was immediate and positive and Kershaw resolved to track down Hawkins and bring him over to the U.K.
Ted Hawkins was born dirt poor in Lakeshore, Mississippi in 1936. He was often in trouble with the law, being sent to reform school at aged 12 and at aged just 15 to the notorious local penitentiary – Parchman Farm, serving three years for theft. The experience toughened him up, and gave him an education he must have found useful in his itinerant early life, moving from flop house to flop house across the Southern states.
David Hepworth once described Hawkins’ voice as sounding “as if the hounds of hell were chasing him”, and perhaps this rawness stemmed from his childhood. It could be heard most clearly on The Lost Ones, a cry for help from a troubled child thrust too soon into manhood, crying for a sick mother and an absent father.
It was while he was serving time that he first took up the guitar. Encouraged by the warder’s wife and inspired by the music of Sam Cooke, in the tough environment of reform school, he embarked on a lifelong love affair with music. The music provided a constant in the years that followed, years punctuated by drug addiction and spells inside. He found he could make a living from busking, entertaining locals and tourists while sat atop an upturned milk crate on Venice Beach.
Coming to England
Kershaw tracked Hawkins down to his last known address in Inglewood, near Los Angeles airport. Hawkins, now past 50 and not working in the music business, was somewhat surprised to see this enthusiastic English DJ standing on his doorstep, but recovered sufficiently to invite Kershaw in and to play four songs into his tape recorder which were to become his first Radio 1 session.
He was immediately taken to the hearts of Radio One’s evening audience – at that time a mix of indie, roots and world music held sway. He came to the U.K., swapping Los Angeles for Bridlington, and experienced the critical acclaim he would not have dreamt of as he busked on the boardwalk of Venice Beach. He released three albums in fairly quick succession. Watch Your Step, a new album Happy Hour and a collection of songs from his busking days, The Venice Beach Tapes. None of these troubled the charts, but he earned critical respect and a loyal fanbase.
Happy Hour, by turns more poppy and more countrified than Watch Your Step perhaps lacked the raw emotion of its predecessor. However, again Hawkins wrote almost every song himself. And it contained the superb country of Cold & Bitter Tears. A domestic kitchen sink drama of lost love- “I cooled the hot dishwater with my cold and bitter tears.”
The Venice Beach Tapes saw Hawkins put his own stamp on mostly country standards. It’s hard to imagine a better version of the country song There Sands The Glass – a torch song for anyone who’s ever had a drink too many.
I Shook His Hand
It was during this period that I was lucky enough to hear Ted Hawkins sing at Birmingham Irish Centre. I’d dragged a workmate along to sit amongst a small but appreciative crowd. My workmate remained unimpressed and left at the end, while I was transfixed. The voice so good on record was just extraordinary at close quarters, squeezing every drop of emotion from his songs.
I stayed back to meet Hawkins, something I have not done at a gig before or since. As I waited patiently I watched Ted meeting the others in line, a large white towel around his neck and the trademark single black leather glove on his left hand. As I waited I thought of the searching questions I might ask – about his childhood, his struggles with drugs and crime and his rebirth in England. In the end I settled for “What do you think of Birmingham?” (he said it was “nice”).
Of course, his meeting with Kershaw wasn’t the first time that Ted Hawkins had been ‘discovered’. You can’t have that much talent and go un-noticed forever. Before Kershaw, he had been discovered by another DJ, Bill Harris, who brought him to the attention of Bruce Bromberg at Rounder Records. His first two albums were cut by Rounder Records, albeit with a 10 year hiatus between the first and the second due to periodic visits to jail.
He was ‘brought back’ on several occasions, but perhaps reluctantly. Each time he would drift back to his old life, a stint in prison and busking along the boardwalk.
He was tracked down one final time and coaxed into another album by Geffen Records. He had just finished this record, The Next Hundred Years, when he died of a stroke, aged just 58.
It’s too easy to talk of a wasted talent. No, his life was what it was. He did not seek fame and adulation, and was probably quite uncomfortable when a little of it came his way. He did not claim to be a role model, but carried himself with a dignity and a humility that made it hard to be judgemental about his frequent incarcerations.
Aside from any of this, he did leave us with a couple of fantastic albums, a handful of songs that deserved to have become classics and memories of a singing voice that belongs right up there with his hero Sam Cooke. Not a bad legacy by any stretch.