I met Al Hawkes at one of the Joe Val Festivals, back in the Green Room. It was not the one where he received the 2009 Heritage Industry Award from the Boston Bluegrass Union. It might have been 2016 when he answered a question about the now-famous Coke bottle that he used for the sound of the spike-hammer on the Lilly Brothers‘ recording of ‘John Henry’. The Lillys with Don Stover were in his Event Records studio back in 1957. You can hear Al at the beginning, striking the ‘spike’ (video HERE):
That’s Everett Lilly on the vocal and mandolin, B Lilly on guitar, and Don Stover on banjo, my favorite recording of ‘John Henry’. Here’s Al in his signature red hat, talking about the Coke bottle (video HERE):
Here’s the text of the award from the BBU:
Musician, entertainer, record label owner, and collector Al Hawkes has contributed to bluegrass and country music in nearly every possible capacity. In 1956 in Westbrook, Maine, he founded Event Records and released early recordings by such key artists as The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, Charlie Bailey (of the Bailey Brothers), Dick Curless, and many more. Born in 1930, Hawkes formed his first band in high school, singing and playing an array of stringed instruments. To this day, he continues to be an active performer, and has received over 25 awards. In addition to releasing a number of important recordings on Event, Hawkes is one of the foremost record collectors in New England, whose archive includes over 40,000 45s, 78s, and LPs.
Even at an advanced age, when I met him briefly, Al was an indefatigably energetic man, which characterized his whole career of adventures in sound and music. As a youngster he got his father to string an high antenna so he could listen to early country music on AM radio. In his teens he started an independent (pirate) radio station; after a year or so the FCC threatened legal action, and his father shut it down. In the meantime, in the late ’40s, he formed a trio, The Cumberland Ridge Runners, with a black kid named Alton Myers playing guitar, Al on mandolin, and another guitarist, Don Williams. Al and Alton often performed as a duo, Allerton and Alton; their recordings were issued by Bear Family Records (Germany) as ‘The First Interracial Country Music Duet’ in 2010. When I met Al, he gave me an Allerton and Alton card, saying he’d send me a copy for airplay. Unfortunately, I never got it; I’ll have to remedy that, belatedly. Here’s a promotional video from Bear Family (video HERE):
Al went to Broadcast School in Boston. The invaluable Hillbilly-Music.com records subsequent events:
During the Korean War, Al was an activated Maine Air National Guard and stationed on an air force base in Tripoli, Libya – North Africa. He worked as a disc jockey and engineer on the AFRS radio station that was located there.
He appeared live on the AFRS radio station with Don Fields’ western band and then formed his own hillbilly group called Al Hawkes and the Cumberland Mountain Folks, doing five live radio shows a week.
After returning to civilian life, Al started a retail Television and Stereo business that he ran for 35 years with his wife Barbara.
In 1956, along with Barbara and Richard Greeley, he formed Event Records and built a recording studio with offices in an abandoned blacksmith shop building in Westbrook, Maine. Many country and bluegrass artists were recorded there – some going on to national fame, such as the Lilley Brothers, Don Stover, Dick Curless, and, Lenny Breau, to name just a few.
Unhappily, Event records was going strong, with not only country and bluegrass records, but rockabilly as well, when a fire in a Boston distributor’s warehouse destroyed some 20,000 records, and the company folded. But we should mention Lenny Breau, the son of Hal Lonepine (Harold Breau) and Betty Cody, popular New Englanders achieving national ‘country and western’ recognition. Lonepine and Betty would sometimes drop Lenny off at Event Records in Westbrook when they had business in Portland. In the first part of this video (up to about 14:00, introduced by a rockabilly song, “Baby, Baby,” that Al Hawkes wrote), Al tells how he first came to record the 15-year-old Lenny, the short-lived guitarist whom Chet Atkins called the “greatest guitar player to ever to walk the face of the Earth”. The conversation moves to the recording of “Baby, Baby,” in which Lenny played lead (video HERE):
Lenny Breau became famous as a jazz guitarist, only to die in what are described as “mysterious circumstances” in his 40s. The informal tracks of young Lenny that Al recorded were later released on a CD, displayed during the conversation above.
The video is also neat because it shows the inside of Al’s Event studio, including the wall clock that plays a role during Al’s recording of the Lilly Brothers, as Al describes in this video with Everett Alan Lilly and Jim Rooney (video HERE):
Back in 2010, Maine Public Radio produced a video (from Rockhouse Mountain Productions) called, cleverly, The Eventful Life of Al Hawkes. It’s available via Vimeo HERE. (Thanks to Gerry Katz for the link.) I’ll try embedding it, but if it doesn’t work, go to the link. It’s 47:40, and well worth your time.
RIP Al Hawkes. The more I learn about him, the more I wish I’d gotten to know him back when I was just getting interested in country music. /CL