This is the companion article to the one written by Alexandra Gill that also
appeared in the Globe and Mail on May 3, 2003.
Cancer-free, he's rompin' again
Let the good times roll, the Hawk is back from death's door.
The veteren rocker credits a host of alternative therapies, but most of all
The Big Rocker in the sky.
By SARAH HAMPSON
Globe and Mail
Saturday, May 3, 2003 - Page R3
'Ronnie! Ronnie! Tell us how you're feelin'!"
A wall of reporters encircles a table in the corner of Sai Woo, a small,
second-floor restaurant on the edge of Toronto's Chinatown. Lights from
television cameras illuminate the scene. Photographers jockey for position.
Questions fill the air.
Ronnie Hawkins, the rock 'n' roll legend and Canadian institution, is back
from the almost-dead and eating a plateful of spicy ginger beef.
"I'm cleaner than an angel's drawer!" he hollers as he shovels another
mouthful in and unleashes his trademark, smoky chuckle.
Seated around the table are some of his friends, along for the media ride.
There's Cathy Young, all bosom, blond ponytail and big red lips. "I have one
dusty Juno," she coos, turning her face to a camera for a smile, when
reporters ask who she is. There's Amy Sky, understated in a black outfit,
her handsome face unmade-up and gazing at Hawkins with obvious affection.
"Ronnie gave me my start 20 years ago in his band," she says. "He invited me
to sing for Bill Clinton in Arkansas back in 1983."
There's Tailor James, Playboy magazine's Miss Playmate for June, seated
beside Hawkins, demurely picking at her plate of saucy noodles. She says
nothing and sports a look of confidence that suggests she knows her youthful
beauty and her filmy blouse, unbuttoned just so, are all that's required.
There's Mark Stenabaugh, a mountain of a man in a faded purple jumpsuit and
spiky blond hairdo. "I'm a performer. I'm Canada's Liberace," he declares as
identification, his pretty baby-blues twinkling under long, dark lashes.
Hovering in the background, his pale face and signature pompadour rising
over the shoulders of those seated, stands Gino Empry, a publicist of local
fame, known for his show-biz clients and the long-held secret of his true
age. Wearing a bright pink shirt with a gold fish dangling at his neck, he
surveys the crowd, having convened it, and licks his fingers clean of sauce,
one after the other, deliciously, as he finishes off a chicken wing.
It's a scene, baby, it's a scene, and Empry has masterminded it, a
Hawkins is here to communicate two things. He's alive and cancer-free, just
as Chinatown is SARS-free and ready (not to mention hopeful) for business.
The outbreak in here is communicable Ronniemania. And it has all the buzz of
an Elvis sighting.
"Oh, baby, I like it when it's nice and tight!" roars Hawkins as he squeezes
between Sky on one side and James on the other for a photo-opportunity hug.
An attractive young reporter crouches down beside The Legend, holding out
her CTV mike like an offer of whisky. "You could eat anywhere, baby. Why are
you here today?" she asks the 68-year-old. Dressed in a black T-shirt with
the Hawk emblazoned across it in white lettering, a cap cocked on his head
of longish silver hair, and his trademark sunglasses that he never removes,
Hawkins turns to address her. He is a Santa Claus of big, bad living, of
curvy women and dope and booze and bar brawls, his stories like children he
bounces on his knee for a little fun.
He tosses off a few riffs, about Canada being the greatest country on Earth,
baby! That he came here in 1958 after rockin' in Arkansas, where he was born
on a farm with no toilets, no runnin' water. The years in Nashville and
Memphis, when he witnessed the birth of rock 'n' roll, first called "hot
country" and later "rockabilly." As soon as he crossed the border from
Detroit to Windsor, he knew he had reached the Promised Land. He wants to
help the city's Chinatown restaurants that have suffered as people stay away
for fear of SARS infection. He ate here at Sai Woo for years when he was
known as the Ambassador of Yonge Street, home strip to all the taverns he
played in and ran. He says he's well, and oh yeah, don't forget, baby, he's
planning a tour this summer.
Last July, Hawkins was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months
to live. Dr. Bryce Taylor, chief surgeon at Toronto General, operated on
him, even held the hard tumour in his hand, legend has it, and then sewed
him up again, unable to remove it because it was entwined around an artery.
They prescribed painkillers and predicted he'd be dead by Christmas.
Hawkins refused to take any medication. "I'd smoke a stick of pot. It's the
greatest healer in the world," he says. "Put that chemical shit
[painkillers] in your veins, that's what will get ya in trouble." He knew he
was "90-per-cent dying" so he took the advice of some friends, who told him
about alternative medicines. He says he tried them all. Robbie Robertson,
the famous musician who played in Hawkins's group, The Hawks, and went on to
found The Band, put him on to some Indian healers. Lonnie Mack, another
legendary guitarist, told him to contact a monk he knew who brewed up some
concoction with bark from a white oak tree. A Canadian/Polish doctor he
calls Dr. Dorothy prescribed other herbal remedies.
Then, a month before a blow-out tribute to Hawkins in October, when death
seemed imminent and friends, including David Foster, famous Canadian music
producer, and former U.S. president and fellow Arkansas boy, Bill Clinton
(via video), showered him with adulation, his manager and daughter-in-law,
Mary McGillis, received an e-mail with a header that read "Help for You."
Her office had been getting thousands of e-mails, up to 38,000 in a period
of four months, Hawkins says later in a one-on-one interview. She read the
letter which seemed "bizarre but honest," she says, and told Hawkins about
it. The sender was Adam, a 16-year-old who lives somewhere undisclosed and
apparently surname-less in British Columbia.
"He explained that everything is made up of the same matter," says Hawkins,
in a moment of calm bemusement during our interview. "His parents told me
that from the time he was 5, they knew he had special gifts."
Hawkins was willing to do anything for a possible cure. Adam apparently
cleansed him a half-dozen times or so, Hawkins recalls. "Now here's the
scary part," he says, suddenly sober, his eyes like big saucers behind the
tinted shades. A month ago, Adam's family phoned to say that "he had flushed
it completely out and that I should go back and tell those doctors to do
another scan." Hawkins did. "We told them that Ronnie was feeling well but
that no one would hire him if they thought he was dying," explains McGillis.
Hawkins is broke. He has had to sell his cars from the sixties and artifacts
from his home near Peterborough, Ont., where he lives with Wanda, his wife
of 42 years. He needs a few gigs.
A CAT scan and a later MRI showed no sign of a tumour. "Baby, it was gone,"
exclaims Hawkins. Neither Dr. Taylor, nor Dr. William Hughes -- a
cardiologist who looked after Hawkins when he suffered heart problems two
years ago and had to undergo a quadruple bypass ("I told everyone I was
going in for a penis reduction," Hawkins chortles) -- were available for
Hawkins doesn't like to say it was Adam who cured him. He prefers to list
the alternate therapies he tried and suggests that maybe one or a
combination of them cleared his tumour. "The way I feel is that there is
only one healer, the Big Rocker up there," he says pointing to the sky.
Besides, he has seen the number of people who approach him about his miracle
and it can spook a guy, even a rocker like him who has seen more than his
share of living. At Sai Woo, a small and intense bearded man, named Norman
Evans, director of Hope for Health, Foundation for Cancer Research, parked
himself at Hawkins's table, trying to bend The Legend's ear. "Multiply him
by a hundred, and add a hundred, and you sure got shit on your hands," says
Hawkins, shaking his head.
The point he wants to make is that he's here, still rockin', still making
people laugh. "I've been the luckiest guy in the world," he says. "I've been
shot at," he says, recounting a tale of driving in Oklahoma. "I had hits put
on me," he says, spinning a yarn about sleeping with beautiful girls in
Memphis who "belonged" to members of the mafia. "And this?" he says, pawing
a deep, permanent bruise on his jaw that peeks above his beard. "Baby, it's
them brawls in the bars. Got a bottle shoved in my face more than once. Came
close to dying a few times."
His miraculous cure? Think of it as just another part of the legend, another
tale to tell in the vaudeville act that is his life. Just like that story
that lingers still about the time he bought his first Rolls-Royce. That was
back in the sixties. A car salesman rebuffed him, thinking that such a
rough-looking character couldn't afford such a car, then worth about
$18,000. So Hawkins went to the bank and got the cash, stuffing it in a
paper bag. He returned to the car lot and counted out the money to the
It's a story, just like this most recent one, and life is made up of them.
"Write this up and give me a big spread," laughs the Hawk. "Could help me
get that Order of Canada," he says as he pushes his cap to the back of his
head and waves a hand over his head as he turns to go.
...See interview with Adam in Focus. F7