Forgotten Artists: Hawkshaw Hawkins (1921-1963)
In Rock & Roll, February 3, 1959, is known as “The Day The Music Died.” On that date a small plane crash in Iowa claimed the lives of Charles Hardin “Buddy Holly” Holley, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Richard “Richie Valens” Valenzuela. Holly was already a superstar, The Big Bopper was a songwriter with a few hits of his own, and Valens was a rising star, enroute to becoming the first Latino Rock & Roll star.
If country music can be said to have a “Day The Music Died,” that date surely is March 5, 1963, when a plane crash claimed the lives of Virgina Hensley (aka Patsy Cline), Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Harold Franklin “Hawshaw” Hawkins.” At the time of the crash Cline had arrived as a major country star with huge pop success on the horizon, Cowboy Copas had been a major star in the late 1940s and early 1950s who had a career renaissance in 1960 with “Alabam.” The third victim, Hawkshaw Hawkins was a veteran artist who had been recording for 15 years but was on the verge of a major breakthrough at the age of 41.
Hawkshaw Hawkins was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia. The nickname ‘Hawkshaw’ dates date to his childhood when he successfully helped a friend track down a pair of missing fishing poles. The friend dubbed him Hawkshaw the Detective based on a comic strip. The nickname was to stick with him throughout his life (he was also sometimes called “The Hawk”). At the age of 13, he is alleged to have traded five rabbits for a homemade guitar and taught himself to play it. Within a few years he had become sufficiently proficient with the guitar that he won a talent contest at local radio station WSAZ. Following his win, he began working at the station, eventually moving to WCHS in Charleston by the end of the 1930s. In 1940 he married Reva Barbour, a 16 year old beauty from Huntington; the marriage lasted until 1958. During 1941, he traveled the United States with a wild west revue, but in late 1942 Hawkins entered the army and served as an engineer, stationed near Paris, Texas where he and friends would sneak out on Friday and Saturday nights to perform at local clubs. Later stationed in Europe, by now attaining the rank of Staff Sargeant, he participated in the Battle of the Bulge, winning four battle stars during his 15 months of combat duty. Afterward he spent time in Manilla in the Philippines and had a radio show on WVTM.
Discharged from the military in late 1945, he returned to West Virginia and gained a spot on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, where he remained for over eight years. A large man (6’6″) with a deep voice, Hawkins became a popular performer due to his engaging personality. In fact, he became a huge star without becoming a recording star, although his recording career started shortly after joining the Jamboree in 1946. He had a few chart hits on King from 1948-51, then disappeared from the charts. The hits were “Pan American” (#9), “Dog House Boogie” (#6), “I Wasted A Nickel” (#15), “I Love You A Thousand Ways” (#8), “I’m Waiting Just For You” (#8) and “Slow Poke” (#7). Although his chart success was small, his records sold well and many were regional hits that did not chart nationally, including his signature song “Sunny Side of The Mountain.”
In 1953 he signed with RCA Victor, and by 1955 Hawkins had become a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. He made some great recordings while with RCA but scored no hit records. A switch to Columbia in 1959 found “Soldiers Joy” reach #15 but there was no further action on the Billboard charts, although four of his other Columbia singles charted on Cash Box, most notably “Darkness On The Face of The Earth,” which reached #11 on the Cash Box country chart. He married legendary singer Jean Shepard in 1960. In mid-1962, after an absence of nine years, he re-signed with King Records. The first two singles “Silver Threads And Golden Needles” and “Bad News Travels Fast (In Our Town)” received considerable acclaim, although neither charted on Billboard (“Bad New Travels Fast did crack the Cash Box Top 40). On March 2, 1963, King released a Justin Tubb-penned song, “Lonesome 7-7203,” that they had high hopes would be Hawkins’ breakthrough single, just as “Alabam” had been for Cowboy Copas in 1960.
Unfortunately, that’s the end of the story as on March 5, 1963 Hawkshaw Hawkins died in the crash that took the lives of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes (pilot, Patsy’s manager, and Copas‘ son-in-law). At the time of his death Jean Shepard was pregnant with son Harold “Hawkshaw Jr,” who would be born a few weeks after the crash. The couple also had a son born the year before they named Don Robbin Hawkins after Don Gibson and Marty Robbins.
“Lonesome 7-7203” did everything King Records and Hawkins had hoped it would do, flying to #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox for four weeks. Unfortunately, King did not have much unreleased material in the vaults and so there were no further chart singles for Hawkshaw Hawkins.
Relatively few Hawkshaw Hawkins albums were issued during his lifetime; most of his recorded output before 1963 was in the form of 45 rpm and 78 rpm singles. King issued three albums collecting old singles, Volume 1 (1958), Volume 2 (1959), and All New (1962), which included “Lonesome 7-7203,” the third single to be released from the album. After his death, King, RCA and Columbia emptied their vaults, releasing whatever material they had.
Hawkshaw Hawkins received the usual neglect during the digital era, although King issued a few budget-line CDs with 10 songs, and threw his material on various anthologies with other artists. Finally in 1991, Bear Family released a comprehensive, three-disc overview of his RCA and Columbia Records called Hawk that sells for around $75.
If $75 is too rich for your budget, Collectibles has issued a set titled Country Gentleman: Hawkshaw Hawkins Sings that collects two old RCA Camden albums. Also, Bear Family has finally relented and started issuing smaller sets. Car Hoppin’ Mama, part of their “Gonna Shake This Shack” series has 16 older King tracks and 17 RCA tracks.
Other than that there isn’t much except for the miscellaneous Gusto/King/Starday/Federal/TeeVee/Cindy Lou/Nashville reissues that generally contain 9-12 tracks and overlap each other considerably–and are variously in and out of print. The Collectibles and Bear Family set are highly recommended. The other sets are variable in terms of digital remastering but worth picking up if you can find them cheaply enough.
Hawkshaw’s widow, Jean Shepard, eventually remarried and continues to perform, mostly at the Grand Old Opry, although at 76 years old she is not as active as once was the case. Sometimes she performs with her son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr., who strongly resembles his father facially, although he is about six inches shorter. He’s a fine singer and has recorded several CDs which you may be able to find at the Ernest Tubb record shop.
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