If not for the wonderful quality of his voice-an older, harshened, less urbane Sam Cooke — and the extraordinary breadth of his catalogue, both original and otherwise, it would be impossible to connect the dots of Ted Hawkins’ tale. His death from a stroke at the beginning of 1995, less than a year after getting the break of his life, is the sort of cosmic irony few novelists would have the gall to will on a fictional character.
Like a latter-day Leadbelly, the Mississippi-born (in 1937) folksinger did time on a chain gang as a young man; he was in his 30s (and not clear of the law for another couple of decades) by the time he found his way to Los Angeles, where he became a fixture on the boardwalk in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, bellowing out songs while brusquely strumming an open-tuned guitar. Hawkins began recording in the ’70s under the auspices of producer Bruce Bromberg, but it wasn’t until 1982 that an album finally appeared under his name. The wonderful Watch Your Step indulges the vintage soul inherent in Hawkins’ voice with a couple of rousing full-on show band arrangements (the title track, “Who’s Got My Natural Comb?”), but otherwise presents his earthy power without complications. Teaching a mighty acoustic lesson in roots music, Hawkins inhabits that secular place just outside the churchyard where gospel, folk and soul meet.
Bromberg keeps a similar template on Happy Hour: a couple of spare electric numbers (the rock’n’rolly “My Last Goodbye,” the countryfied “Happy Hour,” the two-guitar blues of “You Pushed My Head Away”) amid the solo performances in a mix of styles that all take flight in Hawkins’ sturdy emotional delivery. The songwriting isn’t as engagingly diverse as on the debut — Hawkins (reassuringly getting harmony assistance from his wife, Elizabeth, on three numbers) uses romance’s ups and downs as a stand-in for any more pointed comments about his life. There are a couple of ill-conceived duds (“California Song” was produced in evident tribute to the worst end of ’60s folk-rock), but moving numbers like “Cold & Bitter Tears” and “Ain’t That Pretty” keep the album grounded in the spirit.
Following a couple of cassettes sold personally by the busker, Hawkins emigrated to England, where he enjoyed the same kind of appreciation American blues greats once met there. (The Kershaw Sessions documents his stay abroad with radio broadcasts from the late ’80s.) He returned to California in ’90, where he was “discovered” (now there’s a dada “readymade” concept) by a big-league A&R man and converted from itinerant street singer to major-label priority project. The subtext to all this is frightening to consider. The people behind the project undoubtedly proceeded from genuine appreciation of Hawkins’ talent, but — given rock’n’roll’s bottomless ability to exploit — it’s hard not to imagine marketing executives considering the rich House of Blues-style hypability of a charismatic middle-aged black man plucked from the clutches of poverty and despair (an archetype ripe for condescension and historical self-delusion) and delivered to the ready arms of a white audience, an easy one-hour fix for guilt about homelessness and racism.
Carefully, if at times conspicuously, produced with top sessioneers (and, in spots, a calculated Nashville accent) by Tony Berg, The Next Hundred Years hauls Hawkins into the digital age, surrounding his husky voice with more instrumentation than it needs yet still not cutting into Hawkins’ art or personality. “Afraid,” “There Stands the Glass” (a drinking song popularized by Webb Pierce) and Jesse Winchester’s “Biloxi” all pray a little too hard toward central Tennessee, but they’re among the album’s strongest songs. Hawkins’ own sparely rendered “Ladder of Success” sounds closer to his heart, as he expresses the homely spiritualism of his abiding faith: “This is a message to all those who been trying to reach the top of the hill…you got to find somebody to take the wheel…no matter how great you are, you got to know somebody that knows somebody who will lend you a helping hand.”