Music for a Friday

The late Ted Hawkins, who died in 1994.

Damn, what a week this has been.

The Senate cravenly kowtowed and bootlicked its way to impeachment’s inevitable end. Rush Limbaugh received the same honor previously bestowed on Norman Rockwell, Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou. The president used the occasion of the National Prayer Breakfast to reject the teaching of Jesus that we love one another and vent his spleen at his political foes. Kirk Douglas died. And Iowa, as a friend poetically put it in a social media post, “left a brown puddle in the middle of the mattress.”

I mean, let’s be honest, if the highlight of the week is the courage of Mitt Romney, you know it’s been a rough one. Frankly, I feel more than a little sick. And this song “Sorry You’re Sick,” by the late Ted Hawkins, has got the cure. The first verse sets the scene, but the chorus!

Good morning, my darling, I’m telling you this, to let you know that I’m sorry you’re sick
Though tears of sorrow won’t do you no good, I’d be your doctor if only I could.

What do want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I’ll buy all that your belly can hold.
You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.

Hawkins was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, eventually playing to huge crowds overseas in the late 1980s. But with setbacks and disappointments here in the states, he turned to busking on the sands of California’s Venice Beach. Bill Dahl tells the story:

Hawkins existence was no day in the park. Born into abject poverty in Mississippi an abused and illiterate child, Hawkins was sent to reform school when he was 12 years old. He encountered his first musical inspiration there, from New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, whose visit to the school moved the lad to perform in a talent show. But it wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble. At age 15, he stole a leather jacket and spent three years at Mississippi’s infamous state penitentiary, Parchman Farm. 

Roaming from Chicago to Philadelphia to Buffalo after his release, Hawkins left the frigid weather behind in 1966, purchasing a one-way ticket to L.A. Suddenly, music beckoned; he bought a guitar and set out to locate the ex-manager of Sam Cooke (one of his idols). No such luck, but he did manage to cut his debut 45, the soul-steeped “Baby”/”Whole Lot of Women,” for Money Records. When he learned no royalties were forthcoming from its sales, Hawkins despaired of ever making a living at his music and took to playing on the streets. 

Fortunately, producer Bruce Bromberg was interested in Hawkins’ welfare, recording his delightfully original material in 1971, both with guitarist Phillip Walker’s band (“Sweet Baby” was issued as a single on the Joliet label), and in a solo acoustic format (with Ted’s wife Elizabeth occasionally adding harmonies). The producer lost touch with Hawkins for a while after recording him, Hawkins falling afoul of the law once again. In 1982, those tapes finally emerged on Rounder as Watch Your Step, and Hawkins began to receive some acclaim (Rolling Stone gave it a five-star review). Bromberg corralled him again for the 1986 encore album Happy Hour, which contained the touching “Cold & Bitter Tears.” 

At the behest of a British deejay, Hawkins moved to England in 1986 and was treated like a star for four years, performing in Great Britain, Ireland, France, and even Japan. But when he came home, he was faced with the same old situation. Once again, he set up his tip jar on the beach, donned the black leather glove he wore on his fretting hand, and played for passersby.

“Sorry You’re Sick” comes from that first major release on Rounder, and is a joy to listen to. It is the perfect treatment for this bad week, and every bad week. Give it a listen.