Ted Hawkins, liner notes to Suffer No More
Someone just pointed out to me that Ceci N’est Pas un Blog has discovered Ted Hawkins. For others new to Hawkins’s work, here are my liner notes to Suffer No More: The Ted Hawkins Story, a compilation I produced with Gary Stewart for Rhino Records. The record was released in January 1998. The notes are unedited, even though they’re more than a decade old and I can see all that’s wrong with them. I think the record’s out of print now. Here we go:
Ted Hawkins is one of the most unlikely–and, at the same time, one of the most representative–performers in all of American music. The life story of this itinerant singer, songwriter, guitarist, and interpreter reads like someone made it up: born into desperate circumstances, all too familiar with the inside of various institutions, Hawkins nevertheless has a gift and a mission, so he redeems himself and wins the largest audience of his rambling career, just before his life is unexpectedly cut short. Hawkins’s astonishingly diverse music fits no pattern: from hard-edged soul to even harder country, from sweet-voiced pop to open-hearted folk, all pulled by a powerful, hard-earned spiritual undertow, all characterized by a voice as clear, powerful, and idiosyncratic as any.
The facts: Born in Mississippi on October 28, 1936, Ted grew up poor and mistreated, subjected to even more than the usual indecencies afforded African-American kids in the pre-WWII south. He was in Oakley Training School, a reform school (he called it “a school for bad boys”), before he was a teenager, and he was sent to the notorious Parchman Farm at age 15 for stealing a leather jacket. The years that follow are hazy. Ted traveled aimlessly but extensively from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, by which time he had lived through two marriages and landed in Los Angeles. (His third marriage, to Elizabeth, lasted nearly 30 years.)
Music had been part of Ted’s life since the wife of the superintendent at Oakley noticed his vocal aptitude and encouraged it in many ways, one of them inviting Ted to a reform school performance by Professor Longhair. Ted credited Professor Longhair’s appearance with inspiring him to do something with his developing voice, a fierce tenor with elements of many of the classic bluesmen and songsters and–most of all–Sam Cooke. Ted’s guitar playing has always been elemental, rarely diverging much from the Open-C style he learned as a child, which resulted in his major-chords-only style. As time went on, Ted began playing with a protective glove over his left hand–he played with such force that his fingers would bleed without it.
But for years Ted kept his musical prowess to himself. Ted’s first known recordings (as Ted “Soul” Hawkins) are the two sides of a hyperactive soul single–“Baby” and “Whole Lotta Women”–that he cut for Money Records,one of John Dolphin’s labels, but not until 1966. They are spirited numbers, reminiscent of the most raucous Stax sides, but they never charted nationally, and this collection makes them available for the first time in 30 years.
By the time of his 1971 recordings that didn’t see release until 1982 on Watch Your Step, Ted’s voice had deepened and so had his songs. Producer Bruce Bromberg had heard of Ted’s street singing and was struck by the conviction–and the terror–in the sparse solo performances. The four songs from Watch Your Step on this collection, all original compositions, showcase a unique talent determined to make itself heard. “Who Got My Natural Comb?” is a bit off-kilter and certainly faster than most of Ted’s songs. It’s also a riot. “Watch Your Step,” included here in a solo acoustic version, is one of Ted’s archetypal warning songs, elevated by gritty asides and ferocious strumming. Hear this and you’ll understand why he needs the glove. “Sorry You’re Sick” relates the tale of a man coping with the illness of a loved one with deep fear, longing, and commitment. When Ted sings the line “You can be sure, babe, you won’t suffer no more,” he’s trying to reassure himself as well as the one who is afflicted. Yet “Sorry You’re Sick” is not the most poignant number of Watch Your Step; that appellation belongs to “The Lost Ones,” a child’s tale of abandonment that manages to be almost impossibly sad without being overwhelmed by self-pity, no small achievement. Yet even though plaintive expressions of woe comprise a good half of Watch Your Step, Ted’s voice conveys them with a generosity and directness that always coalesce into hope.
While his music was full of such grace, Ted was soon in trouble again. He was released from the California Medical Facility in Vacaville on August 20, 1982, shortly after Rounder released Watch Your Step, and he enjoyed much critical attention. A second set for Rounder, Happy Hour, also produced by Bromberg and Dennis Walker, was released in 1986. It didn’t have the impact of Watch Your Step–the shock of discovering Ted could happen only once, after all–but it did deliver many songs that would become standards in Ted’s repertoire. It kicks off with “Bad Dog,” the tale of a man just returned from some unnamed confinement who discovers that his lover is having an affair because her ill-tempered dog treats one man with surprising tenderness. Ted’s performance is as wild as his writing here, fighting the meter to squeeze in every syllable of outrage, confusion, and still-burning love. When the song fades as Ted tries to feed the dog and sings “He bit my hand” over and over, it sounds like he’ll be reliving this moment forever. “Happy Hour” (the first of several covers in this collection) is another cheating song, one of the most overtly country-and-western performances here, in which Ted’s discovery of his beloved’s infidelity is less original than in “Bad Dog” but no less affecting. The honky-tonk rhythms make one wonder how Hawkins might have fared as part of the Nashville machine. “Cold And Bitter Tears” is “The Lost Ones” sung by an adult, a man trying to keep his life together after being abandoned, anchored by another of those unique images (his tears mixing with the dishwater) that only Ted could have dreamed up.
Another superb album notwithstanding, Ted was still making his living busking. His most popular weekend spot was along Venice Beach’s Ocean Front Walk, where he would demand attention. “In some ways, the beach is better practice than a concert hall,” Ted told me in 1994. “I sing it like I want to sing it on the beach. In a club I’ve got a roster I’ve got to keep to, and I’ve only got so much time. On the boardwalk, I can sing all day if I want to, eight hours, 10 to 6. I’ve got to sing to stop them and then I’ve got to get them to stay there. In the club, I’ve already got them.”
That the amateur roots of the most heartfelt pop music is inarguable. Great performers who have reached megaplatinum status can come up with songs and performances that cut to the core, but rock’n’roll is full of performers whose debut, recorded while they were unknowns, far exceeds anything else they’ve ever done. It’s no romantic cliche to suggest that great art might be more likely to come out of hunger, from performers who are singing for their supper. This is the way Ted lived for many years, but he had the good fortune of doing it on a boardwalk occasionally frequented by people who could do something about his predicament.
One of those people was H. Thorp Minister III, who brought Ted to Nashville and, in September 1985, recorded two records’ worth of the cover songs Ted performed for the beachgoers. (Only one original, “Ladder of Success,” graces those two records.) While fans of Ted’s compositions might want more, the two volumes of On the Boardwalk make the case for Ted as one of our finest interpreters. “I try to make the songs mine,” he said. “I sprinkle a little more pepper here, make it a little more intensified there.”
Intensified is the key word for the three diverse Boardwalk tunes here: the Brook Benton pop-soul hit “I Got What I Wanted,” Johnny Horton’s country standard “North to Alaska,” and the plaintive “Don’t Ever Leave Me.” Using his outdoor voice on these performances, Ted discards the traditional understatement of his studio recordings and makes sure that anyone within earshot will stop, look, and listen.
In early 1986, BBC Radio One DJ Andy Kershaw traveled to Los Angeles, unannounced, to record Ted for the British network’s flagship channel (Ted’s solo recordings from 1986, 1987, and 1989 for the BBC appear on The Kershaw Sessions, Strange Roots 006, 1995). After a second “field recording” in Los Angeles, Ted was persuaded to fly (for the first time) to England, where he spent much of the subsequent four years. He enjoyed some popularity (I Love You Too, a self-produced album that includes this collection’s “Who Do You Love” and “I Ain’t Got Nothing Yet,” made a bit of noise on the UK independent charts), a good amount of concert work, and some long-overdue recognition when Billy Bragg performed his “Cold and Bitter Tears.” But by 1990, he was homesick and no longer a novelty to British audiences, so he returned to the boardwalk of Venice Beach.
Javier Benitez was one of the may to hear Ted at the beach. Benitez’s friend Mike Drianis had a home studio, where he recorded Ted singing Sam Cooke’s Soul Stirrer classic “Be With Me Jesus.” In this previously unreleased performance, we can hear the purest expression of Ted’s love for Cooke’s music, which we’d expect, and his ability to transcend that influence and go somewhere new, which we might not.
One of the beachgoers lucky enough to hear Ted was a top executive of the Mattel Co., who promptly whisked Ted into the company’s recording studio. As Ted wrote to his manager, Nancy Meyer, “He was standing in the crowd as I sang. I captured his heart.” The two previously unissued songs recorded on July 26, 1990, for Mattel, “You’re Beautiful to Me” and “Happy Days,” are among Ted’s most atypical and intriguing performances, especially the former, which includes an unexpected vocal counterpart (by wife Elizabeth) and a thrilling tribute to a country that treated Ted about as poorly as one could.
As glorious as these private performances are, it’s worth remembering that no one got to hear them. In the early 90s, most of Ted’s few recordings were out of print and all of them were difficult to find. He made enough money from his weekend performances on Venice Beach to get by, but not much more.
That all changed in 1993, when Michael Penn, whose apartment was within earshot of Ocean Front Walk, heard Ted perform, told his producer Tony Berg about him, Berg got a job at Geffen Records, and in his late 50s Ted was finally signed to a major label. In 1994, The Next Hundred Years arrived. It was a knockout.
Although The Next Hundred Years is a studio recording with professional musicians, its stripped-down songs, most of them closely held originals, are put across with the urgency of someone who knows what it’s like to stare at people’s hands while he’s playing to see if they’ll reach into their pockets. So when he charges into “There Stands the Glass” faster and harder than Webb Pierce, who had the original hit, he’s got good reason: He doesn’t want to go back to the beach. The record kicks off with “Strange Conversation,” an older tune (he recorded a demo of it for Bromberg in 1971) that mixes timeless, spooky wisdom with modern production to stunning effect. The set also includes Ted’s most unexpected cover ever, an atmospheric take on Jesse Winchester’s “Biloxi” that is at once both much sunnier than Ted’s own Mississippi childhood and a model of controlled emotion. This compilation concludes with “The Good And The Bad,” an autobiographical statement of love, warning, despair, and hope that ranks among Ted’s most tough-minded compositions. It feels like a summation of all his major musical and lyrical themes.
On the strength of the record and Geffen’s support, Ted embarked on his most extensive tour ever and began work on a second collection for the label. Without a doubt, 1994 was the happiest, most successful, most satisfying year of Ted’s life. His unexpected death from a stroke on New Year’s Day 1995 was cruel and tragic, but he passed on knowing that his music had finally connected, he passed on having been loved and accepted for the most constant thing in his life: his music.