Dale Hawkins, 73

Rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins, 'Susie Q' writer, dies at 73

By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dale Hawkins, 73, a Louisiana rockabilly singer and record producer whose 1957 hit "Susie Q" became a rock-and-roll standard and was a hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late 1960s, died of colon cancer Feb. 13 at a hospital near his home in Little Rock.

During his brief time in the limelight, Mr. Hawkins employed influential guitarists James Burton and Roy Buchanan. Mr. Hawkins's version of "Susie Q" was more raw, Southern blues than pop. He sang loudly and lustfully over Burton's distorted blues riff and an insistent cowbell.

Rolling Stone called "Susie Q" "the first rock 'n' roll record where the guitar counts for more than the song itself. Burton's lurching, fingerpicked gutbucket blues riff gives way to dirty-toned, scorched-earth solos after every verse."

Delmar Hawkins Jr. was born Aug. 22, 1936, on a plantation in Goldmine, La. After his parents separated, he and his siblings were raised by his grandparents.

Mr. Hawkins picked cotton and worked a paper route, then lied about his age to join the Navy at 16. In 1956, when his hitch was up, he started a band in Bossier City, La., with Burton. Stan Lewis, who owned a record shop in Shreveport, brought the band to the attention of Chess Records, a rhythm-and-blues label in Chicago. For Chess, Mr. Hawkins recorded the song "See You Soon, Baboon," modeled on the Bobby Charles hit "See Ya Later, Alligator."

The record failed to sell, and label owner Leonard Chess had reservations about releasing Mr. Hawkins's second record, "Susie Q." But a local disc jockey took a demo of the song to Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler. Wexler expressed interest in it, forcing Chess's hand.

Mr. Hawkins had to assign part of the song's writing credits to Lewis and E. Broadwater, a pseudonym for Nashville DJ Gene Nobles. The move ensured airplay but caused him to miss out on royalty payments.

Chess promoted the record slowly, one region at a time. The band took to the road, sometimes driving 800 miles between shows, with hasty recording sessions along the way. Mr. Hawkins often played in black theaters where he was the only white artist on the bill.

His other hits for Chess included "La-Do-Dada" (1958) and two other teen-oriented songs, "A House, a Car and a Wedding Ring" (1958) and "Class Cutter (Yeah, Yeah)" (1959). Later records for Chess and other labels were less successful.

Returning to Shreveport in the late 1960s, Mr. Hawkins turned to producing, crafting hits for Joe Stampley and the Uniques in addition to the Five Americans, along with the novelty song "Judy in Disguise" (1968) for John Fred. In the 1970s, Mr. Hawkins joined RCA Records in Los Angeles, working with singer-songwriters Michael Nesmith and Harry Nilsson.

After completing a drug rehabilitation program in the 1980s, Mr. Hawkins opened a crisis intervention program in Louisiana.

With belated royalty payments from CD reissues, he opened a recording studio in 1995 and reemerged with a series of self-produced albums, performing at rockabilly festivals in the United States and Europe.

Mr. Hawkins was a first cousin of Ronnie Hawkins, a rock-and-roll performer whose band included future members of The Band.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company