About The Artist
He was born in Huntington, West Virginia; his name was Harold Franklin Hawkins, but the music world came to know him as Hawkshaw Hawkins. He grew to be about six feet five inches tall. His nature and height probably had a hand in the fans giving him the nickname of "Eleven and one-half yards of personality".
He was part of a family of four. When he was just 13 years old, he got his first guitar, a homemade one, that he got in a trade for five rabbits. He continued his musical interests and got his first foot in the door through a bit of fate.
There was an amateur radio contest in his home town and someone dared Hawkshaw to enter the contest. He not only won the contest, but the radio station, WSAZ of Huntington, WV, gave him his first regular spot on the air. In a question and answer session as part of a column called "Witness Box" in an old Country Song Roundup, Hawkshaw related that a couple named Dot and Smokey gave him one of his first breaks in the music business when he teamed with them over WSAZ. He also said Jake Taylor had helped out, too but no other details were provided.
A couple years later and he was working as the emcee of a show that aired over WCMI in Ashland, Kentucky. He also appeared over other stations such as WCHS in Charleston, West Virginia, WLAW, in Lawrence, Massachusetts and WFIL out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Like many artists in that era, Hawkshaw's musical career was interrupted by World War II. He entered the Army Engineering Corps in November of 1943. He was stated to have served in the Army about two and a half years as a Sergeant. He served in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) and in the Pacific. He was also a part of the 197th Engineering Maintenance Company. During that time, he saw nearly 15 months of combat duty and was a participant in the "Battle of the Bulge", which took place in late 1944 and lasted through 1945. He earned four battle stars. After the war ended in Germany, he was assigned to the Philippines.
It was while he was stationed in the Philippines that Hawkshaw enjoyed one of the highlights of his career that was often mentioned in the write-ups in the magazines of that era. He was part of an all-GI show in Manila that aired over radio station WTUM or WUTM (we've seen various radio station names for this stint in the Philippines, the fan club newsletter we have mentions it was WUTM.).
In January of 1946, Hawkshaw was discharged from the military service. It appears that upon going home to resume his music career, he went first to the steel regions of Pennsylvania and hooked up with radio station WKST in New Castle. While he was there, an artists bureau member heard Hawkshaw's singing and sent a recommendation to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, the home of the World's Original Jamboree. He made a guest appearance on that show on July 29, 1946 and in August, he joined the cast of the show. It didn't take long for the fans to discover his popularity. They ran a popularity contest after he had been there only six weeks and he came in second place (one article we read mentioned he came in second to Big Slim)! Later, he won a popularity contest. A fan club newsletter mentions the crowds "...would scream encores as he performed on the Jamboree stage."
We get an idea of the audience reaction to Hawkshaw's appearances on the WWVA Original Jamboree show from some quotes attributed to Curly Miller, in a Hillbilly News article of 1947. Curly was the emcee of the show back then and they wrote that towards the end of the show, Curly would step up to the microphone and introduce the man the fans called "Eleven yards of personality and song." But it seems that before Curly could even get to say his name, his voice was drowned out by "..the screaming and thunderous applause of the frenzied audience".
Curly had worked as master of ceremonies at several of the top shows of the time, the WIBC Jamboree in Indiana, the WLS National Barn Dance, the Hayloft Frolic, the Noon Day Merry-Go-Round and others before coming to the WWVA show. Curly said,
"But I have never seen or heard any other entertainer given such a tremendous applause and welcome ovation."
The article goes on to try and explain this popularity, attributing it to "His top recordings, his pleasing voice, his vibrant personality, his all-around good humor". They also said he was just Hawkshaw Hawkins, "…no airs, no strut, no sham."
Hawkshaw worked for some time with the Big Slim show as they teamed up on personal appearances before Big Slim left the station.
In July of 1948, Hawkshaw left WWVA (his replacement they said was Tennessee Morgan) and in August joined WFIL in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where it was reported he would also do television spots in addition to working on the radio. While at WFIL, he appeared on the Saturday night show, the Hayloft Hoedown which was televised and broadcast over the ABC network. But perhaps his West Virginia roots were too strong, for in November 1948, he returned to WWVA.
The fan club newsletter reported that they staged a special welcome Jamboree for his return. They said thousands came to the theatre, lining up early in the day to make sure they got the best seats. They wrote, "No star ever received a greater ovation than hawk as he stepped before the footlites of the famous Jamboree stage that night."
This stint at WWVA lasted until February 2, 1952 when he left to go on an extended tour of Canada and states such as Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan and Ohio.
After that extended tour, he returned to WWVA on September 18, 1952 to appear twice a night on the Original Jamboree as well as a studio show at 1:45am. He stayed this time until June of 1954. He went west to Missouri to work with the cast that was being put together by the Ozark Jubilee airing over KWTO in Springfield, Missouri that was led by Red Foley. Hawkshaw's popularity continued while there and in fact was one of the original cast members that were also a part of the first television broadcasts of the show. In July of 1954, Hawkshaw had started a daily radio show over KWTO. And later that same month, on July 17, the first performance of the Ozark Jubilee took place at the Jewell Theater in Springfield. Other members of that inaugural cast included Tommy Sosebee, Slim Wilson and Porter Wagoner. Later on, the show loaned him to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and before you know it, the Opry made him a member.
It seems that while on the Ozark Jubilee, a couple of Opry stars, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb had heard him and talked to Jack Stapp who was the director of WSM and the Grand Ole Opry then. Let's see how Hawkshaw described his invitation to join the Opry in a magazine article (he joined the Opry in June of 1955):
"I was sitting in my house when the phone rang. I answered it and a voice said, 'This is Hank.' Hank Snow, you mean, I said. 'Yes', you have a job at WSM anytime you want it.' Well, I just couldn't believe it but I called Mr. Stapp and he told me to report in two weeks for the Opry." Later, Hawkshaw noted, " It's taken me 17 years to get to the Grand Ole Opry and I hope it takes 17 years more for them to get rid of me."
His fame continued to spread. He was being heard on a radio network show called "Saturday Night Country Style" that was broadcast each week from the famous live jamboree / Opry type shows back then from places such as Richmond, Louisville, Wheeling, Knoxville, Shreveport, Dallas and Nashville.
Hawkshaw himself was a bit of a talented musician, playing several instruments, though most fans associate him playing the guitar. He could also play the five-string banjo, mandolin, violin, bass and harmonica, too.
He also wrote many tunes during his career, such as:
During its heyday, Hawkshaw's Fan Club, "Golden Spurs" was one of the biggest in the industry.
Hawkshaw enjoyed other aspects of life besides music and was fond of outdoor sports, such as fishing, baseball, swimming, coon-hunting and horseback riding. They said he later started 'collecting' tropical fish if that's the way to describe it and also had a Pomeranian dog named Cricket.
In fact, he was quite the horseman and had several horses. He learned to use a bullwhip when he met Kit Carson while at a radio station in Lawrence, Massachusetts and continued to use it in his shows. His abilities with the horses should help us understand the natural teaming of Big Slim who was also a horseman while they were at WWVA. In a side note, Hank Snow was also a part of Big Slim's show for a short time. Hawkshaw at one time had two trained horse, one named "Chief" who was said to be able to do 25 tricks. Another horse was "Tomahawk" - a combination of the names Hawkshaw and Tom, for Tom Kelly, his manager.
In one interesting mention we found, it notes that Hawkshaw was going to take a show on tour in the Northwest for 60 days "…at a guaranteed $100,000 dollars."
He recorded first for the King record label. On May 1, 1953, he signed with the RCA Victor label. Then he moved to Columbia before returning to the King label. Perhaps his most requested song at one time was Filipino Baby, for they wrote, "…what Hawkshaw can't do with that song, no one can."
During that second tour with the King label, he recorded a Justin Tubb (son of Ernest Tubb) tune called "Lonesome 7-7203" in 1962.
But sadly, Hawkshaw would not live to see it reach number one on the charts. On March 5, 1963, he, along with fellow Grand Ole Opry stars, Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline, were returning from a benefit show (for a disc jockey that had lost his leg) in a plane piloted by Randy Hughes, the son-in-law of Cowboy Copas and the manager of Patsy Cline. The plane encountered a blinding thunderstorm that caused the plane to crash in the woods near Camden, Tennessee.
On the personal side, Hawkshaw was married at one time to a young lady from Huntington, WV, named Reva Barbour, who he later divorced. Their daughter was Marlene, who is now a Country Gospel singer/songwriter, author and speaker.
He married again, this time to Jean Shepard, another famed country music singer who is also a part of the Grand Ole Opry. Hawk and Jean had two sons: Don Robin and Harold Franklin II. Harold is also a singer/songwriter.
The marriage of Hawkshaw Hawkins and Jean Shepard was quite a thing back on November 26, 1960. Country Song Roundup featured it on their cover and wrote up the details and provided some photos. They were appearing as part of a Grand Ole Opry show at the Forum Auditorium in Wichita, Kansas. And it was quite a show to say the least - sharing the stage that day were Tex Ritter, Hank Morton, Carl Perkins, The Plainsmen Quartet, The LeGarde Twins from Australia, Moon Mullican, Gary Van and his Western Starlighters. The article reports that a crowd of 4,000 folks attended this gala event.
Their wedding took place after the show. When the curtain closed after the last song and after a brief interlude, organ music filled the auditorium, then the Plainsmen Quartet sang a couple of tunes, "True Love" and "Her Hand In Mine" to set the mood for the ceremony.
Then Jean appeared dressed in her bridal gown. The procession took them through the audience to the stage, with an arbon of Chrysanthemums. The owner of the local radio station KSIR, Nick Sanders, was the emcee of the ceremony, letting the audience know what was occurring.
After the ceremony, Jean told the audience that those wanting a souvenir, could come to the stage and take a piece of the floral decorations. Needless to say, fans took her up on this offer. The audience even got to sample the wedding cake, though there wasn't enough for everyone, but the article said nearly a 1,000 people got to taste it. After the wedding, the couple would make their home in Nashville.
And we'll leave you with this greeting that he was known for,
"May the Lord Take a Likin' To Ya!"
Timeline and Trivia Notes
West Virginia Nighthawks members:
Credits & Sources
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