Late boardwalk busker Ted Hawkins is remembered with tribute album “Cold and Bitter Tears”
By Bliss Bowen
Venice Beach can seem like a ragtag carnival of muscle men, zany jugglers and opportunity-minded musicians, but occasionally you encounter artistic gold — like Ted Hawkins, a soulful fixture there who played his acoustic guitar and sang for tips until his “discovery” by Geffen Records.
The raw-edged, full-toned Hawkins, who’s retained a cult following since his death at age 58 on New Year’s Day 1995, is being celebrated with Friday’s release of “Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins.”
Curated by Austin-based radio promoter Jenni Finlay and journalist Brian T. Atkinson, the compilation salutes Hawkins with performances by James McMurtry, Kasey Chambers, Mary Gauthier, Jon Dee Graham, Gurf Morlix, Sunny Sweeney and former Angelenos Tim Easton, Ramsay Midwood and Randy Weeks. Steve James and Shinyribs celebrate the funkier end of Hawkins’ musical spectrum, but most of the participants are Americana artists — which would have satisfied Hawkins, who chafed at the blues label with which he was usually tagged.
“He didn’t like to be put in a category,” stepdaughter Tina-Michelle Hawkins Fowler says with a laugh. “He loved to sing several genres in his repertoire, mainly R&B and folk, some Americana, some country and western. Music was his platform; it was his healing source. He’d always say, ‘Don’t pigeonhole me, don’t put me into a box!’”
Hawkins Fowler, who sings the ’60s-style pop ditty “Baby” with her mother, says singing with Hawkins was “a big part of our family time.” Hawkins, wife Elizabeth and five children lived in Los Angeles and traveled to Venice by bus.
“Dad was like nursery rhymes for us; he’d line us up on the porch when we were younger and give us all our parts and we’d sing songs together,” Hawkins Fowler explains.
“We were embarrassed when he first started [busking]. We always thought he did great, he was a pro; but having his guitar case open and having people dropping change in there, and he would have signs up — it was embarrassing when you’re little. But then when he brought that change home and he poured it on the bed and we got to eat real good, then it stopped being embarrassing [laughs], real quick.”
Blues guitarist Rick Holmstrom holds vivid memories of Hawkins.
“First time, I was walking the 3rd Street Promenade with San Pedro Slim, going to get a beer, and we heard him before we saw him,” Holmstrom says via email. “Stopped us dead in our tracks. I just remember thinking that it couldn’t possibly be someone singing live, that it had be a record playing in one of the stores. We walked a bit farther and there he was, sitting on a milk crate wearing a glove with the fingers cut out on his fretting hand. It was uncanny how much he sounded like an older Otis Redding, or maybe a raspier Sam Cooke, and his guitar playing was everything and all he needed. Later I found out who he was when he was ‘discovered.’
“I saw him a couple more times on the Venice Boardwalk. Bought a cassette. Man, I wish I hadn’t been so shy. Wish I had talked to him more, maybe asked him to come to a Johnny Dyer gig or something.”
Born in Mississippi to an alcoholic prostitute and a father he never knew, Hawkins endured an abusive, poverty-racked childhood and taught himself basic spelling, arithmetic, and how to play guitar and piano. A stint in reform school — where a visiting Professor Longhair encouraged him musically — was followed by three years at the notorious Parchman Farm prison (for theft). Released at 19, he drifted for a decade through Midwestern and Eastern cities before beelining for L.A.’s warmer climes and burgeoning music scene in 1966. In 1971, he made some gritty recordings with producer Bruce Bromberg; due to Hawkins’ addiction issues and another bounce through jail, they weren’t released until 1982, on
Rounder’s “Watch Your Step.” Hawkins reteamed with Bromberg for 1986’s “Happy Hour.”
Hawkins subsequently moved to England for four years. He toured Europe, playing clubs as well as Switzerland’s Montreaux Festival, recorded 1989’s “I Love You Too” and experienced fame he hadn’t found in America. But when he returned to California, he went back to busking
and contributing to street-music collections like 1992’s “Spirit of Venice, California,” which featured his song “Groovy Little Things.”
Then came his “discovery.” In 1994, DGC/Geffen Records released “The Next Hundred Years,” which featured a gospel-y version of “Groovy Little Things” as well as “Big Things” and “Strange Conversation,” both covered on “Cold and Bitter Tears.” The polished major label debut received a flood of adulatory press, and it seemed Hawkins’ arduous struggle for recognition and stability had finally paid off. A brief respite ensued that Hawkins Fowler says was “like a little piece of heaven” for the “gentle giant.”
“That was the culmination of all his hard work and struggle as a human being, as a black man, as a married black man trying to take care of his family — a readymade family,” Hawkins Fowler observes. “He was determined to make it. Dad was a survivor. He knew how to make stuff happen, whether it was cooking, picking up the guitar and going out and making some change so we could eat, or cleaning somebody’s dishes at a restaurant so he could get the leftovers so we could eat.”
But within months, Hawkins died of a stroke. It was a shocking loss to his family and community.
“His memorial service was incredible,” Hawkins Fowler recalls. “I mean, he went out with a bang. People from all over came — I’m talking about derelicts to bigwigs, blue collar, white collar and everything in between — and shared
how his music really impacted their lives. … Coming from such a man, who had such power and such passion and such love, [whose] life really came from a lot of hurt and heartache … his music was uplifting and positive and powerful and inspirational.”
Now, she says, the family is grateful that the compilation is keeping his music “alive in people’s hearts. … What a wonderful blessing.”
“Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins” is available from Eight30 Records at eight30records.com.