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Hear Ronnie Hawkins Cover The Band’s Christmas Staple

Unstoppable rockabilly icon who gave The Band its start releases “Christmas Must Be Tonight”

Ronnie Hawkins

Ronnie Hawkins teamed up with Gordon Lightfoot (left) to record a new version of The Band's "Christmas Must Be Tonight."

Cole Burston/Toronto Star

Just a few weeks from turning 81, Ronnie Hawkins admits he’s slowing down. But the early rock & roll career-maker — he assembled the players that would become The Band — is far from finished.

“I got one foot in the grave and another in a puddle of WD-40, but I feel alright,” Hawkins tells Rolling Stone Country, dropping the first of a steady stream of one-liners. “I have a hard time getting around — my legs are gone, ’cause I chased too many girls.”

Earlier this year, Hawkins nonetheless ambled his way into the recording studio to put a fresh spin on The Band’s holiday song “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” Written by Robbie Robertson, the imagery-rich track appeared on The Band’s 1977 Islands album and featured a typically yearning vocal from Rick Danko. In the hands of Hawkins, the song takes on a more country feel, as he croons to string-forward instrumentation. (Listen to the song below.)

The country bent is a bit ironic, according to Hawkins, who recorded the song with Marty Davis and Canadian folk icon Gordon Lightfoot as producers.

“Back when we was young, we didn’t even want to act like we knew anybody that sung country. We thought those country acts were square johns,” says Hawkins. “‘We’re not from Nashville, we’re from Memphis,’ we’d say. We thought we were cool dudes with that long hair and collar turned up.”

But Hawkins, who was born in Arkansas and eventually relocated to Canada, does have a history with Conway Twitty.

“He still owes me a guitar,” quips Hawkins, referring to Twitty by his given name, Harold Jenkins. “He borrowed my guitar to go to Canada and never gave it back. But I played a lot with Harold Jenkins in the old days in Arkansas. He had some good songs.”

A highlight of The Band’s 1976 Last Waltz concert with his rave-up performance of “Who Do You Love?” — “They said I had a wonderful time,” he recalls — Hawkins wasn’t expected to live past a 2002 cancer diagnosis. He beat it a year later, after trying a combination of holistic treatments, including a spiritual healer.

“It was an Indian healer and then Robbie Robertson sent me some magical mystery stuff from the Indian reservations. I got stuff from everywhere. When you think you’re dying, you’ll try anything. They ask me, ‘Which do I think cured me?'” says Hawkins, pausing for one last set-up. “My personal opinion is it was all those thousands of girls praying that I could come by and see them just one more time.”

In This Article: Ronnie Hawkins, The Band

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