Raised in northeastern Louisiana, Dale Hawkins is most famous for "Susie Q" which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named among the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
Rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins enjoyed a long and varied career as a singer, guitarist, producer, and even television show host. He is best known for the rock standard “Susie Q” (spellings vary), a 1957 hit single that would be covered by scores of other artists.
Delmar Allen “Dale” Hawkins was born August 22, 1936, in Gold Mine, a small agricultural community near Mangham in the Delta region of northeast Louisiana. His father, Delmar “Skipper” Hawkins, played music professionally during the 1930s and 1940s and was briefly a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, while his mother, Estelle Taylor Hawkins, was a teacher. His brother Jerry was also a recording artist, releasing three singles on the Ebb label and playing local clubs. Hawkins’s cousin Ronnie went on to fame with his backing band the Hawks, whose members later became better known as The Band. After his parents divorced, Hawkins stayed with various relatives, including his aunt Annabel Hawkins.
Hawkins grew up absorbing a wide range of musical influences, including country and rhythm and blues (R&B) shows that he heard on Shreveport radio station KWKH (home of the Louisiana Hayride), blues from black sharecroppers with whom he picked cotton on his grandfather’s farm, and black gospel singers in local churches. He bought his first guitar at age thirteen with money he had saved from his paper route. Hawkins left home at fifteen and lied about his age in order to join the US Navy. He served on a destroyer during the Korean War. Upon his military discharge, he moved to Bossier City and attended college while working part-time at Stan’s Record Shop in the neighboring city of Shreveport. There he displayed a remarkable ability to identify songs after hearing customers sing a line or two. Determined to try his hand at the music business, he formed a band to play at high school and teen dances. He and his band members moved on to the clubs on the so-called Bossier Strip, a nightlife area that catered to off-duty military personnel from nearby Barksdale Air Force Base.
His first single, “See You Soon, Baboon” (intended as an “answer” record to Bobby Charles’s “See You Later, Alligator”), was recorded at KWKH studios during off-air hours. He cut a rough demo of “Susie Q” at radio station KENT’s studios in Shreveport with future country star Merle Kilgore producing, and later recorded another, cleaner-sounding version. Stan’s Record Shop was the regional distributor for Chicago label Chess Records, so owner Stan Lewis sent the song to Chess. The record was released in April 1957 on the Checker subsidiary as one of the first singles Chess released by a white artist, and it eventually reached No. 27 on the Billboard pop charts and No. 7 on the R&B charts.
One of the first rock ’n’ roll records to feature lead guitar instead of saxophone, “Susie Q” combined a 1950s rock ’n’ roll sound with a heavier blues feel that influenced many 1960s bands. The song’s title was most likely based on a 1930s dance craze by that name, which had been featured on the 1936 record Cotton Club Revue. Several R&B hits of the era mention the dance, including “Be My Guest” by Fats Domino, “Willie and the Hand Jive” by Johnnie Otis, and “The Walk” by Jimmy McCracklin. The song’s melody came from a 1954 song by the Clovers, “I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” while the distinctive guitar part was played by fifteen-year-old James Burton, who would become a guitar legend, soon to play with Ricky Nelson and, for many years, with Elvis Presley. Years later, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page said that the “Susie Q” riff was what made him want to play rock ’n’ roll.
Asked about the origin of “Susie Q,” Hawkins said, “I wrote it, but never actually wrote it—it just kind of worked itself out.” Though he was the true author, the record itself was credited to him, Stan Lewis, and Eleanor Broadwater, wife of disc jockey Gene Nobles of Nashville radio station WLAC, most likely as a thank-you for radio airplay. Hawkins claimed he didn’t see any royalties from the song until 1985, when MCA bought the Chess Records catalog. “Susie Q” was covered by many artists, most notably Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose 1968 version from their first LP made it to No. 11 on the Billboard chart.
Hawkins’s version of “My Babe,” featuring Roy Buchanan on guitar, reached No. 7 on the R&B chart in 1958. Though he had a few more minor hits in 1958 and 1959, he was unable to duplicate the success of “Susie Q.” In addition to Burton and Buchanan, many notable musicians passed through Hawkins’s bands, including guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D. J. Fontana (both of whom played with Elvis Presley), and future country stars Floyd Cramer and Conway Twitty.
National tours and appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in 1957 and 1958 followed the success of “Susie Q.” Hawkins was one of the first white artists to play the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York. He even hosted his own teen dance party television program in 1960, The Dale Hawkins Show, on WCAU-TV in Philadelphia.
After leaving Chess, Hawkins cut a few singles for the Tilt and Zonk labels, and two for Atlantic, but none were hits. In 1962 he moved back to Shreveport and became a producer for the Jewel and Paula labels run by his former boss, Stan Lewis. Later he served as president of ABNAK Records in Dallas, Texas, where he had hits with The Five Americans, John Fred and his Playboy Band, and Bruce Channel. He then served as vice president of the southwest region for Columbia Records; in 1968 he became RCA’s head of A&R (artists & repertoire) for the West Coast, working with artists like Harry Nilsson and Mike Nesmith.
After a few years in Los Angeles, Hawkins became disillusioned with the music business and relocated to the South, where he worked in the insurance and automobile industries. He did find time during this period to record the L.A., Memphis, and Tyler, Texas LP in 1968 with a young Ry Cooder on guitar. Though the album did not sell well at the time, it is now regarded as a “lost” classic.
During the 1970s, drug problems plagued Hawkins, and he eventually relocated to Arkansas, where he went through a rehabilitation program. In 1986, after MCA Records bought the Chess catalog, he received a check for $64,000 and built his own studio. During the 1990s and 2000s, Hawkins enjoyed a career resurgence, playing festivals and recording two well-regarded albums, Wildcat Tamer (1999) and Back to Louisiana (2007). He is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. “Susie Q” was named one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2005 Hawkins was diagnosed with colon cancer. He continued to perform and record while undergoing treatment. He died on February 13, 2010, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In addition to his own records, Dale Hawkins’s production work and his mentorship of young musicians make him an important figure in early rock ’n’ roll history. Asked what advice he had for young musicians, Hawkins replied, “Study the masters, man. … Grab the roots and see how it evolved and know what’s real.”