Love My Susie-Q
"Susie-Q" (D. Hawkins - S.J. Lewis-E. Broadwater)
Dale Hawkins, Checker 863, 1957
I’m surprised this record has any grooves left on it. I got it at the TG&Y store in Memphis, when I was eight years old – I started collecting early – and played it incessantly. I absolutely flipped over this guitar-lover’s wet dream then, and am still big on it today, although I generally play a CD version on one of several re-issues of Dale Hawkins’ early recordings. But I thought I’d give you a shot of the real deal 45 that I’ve carted around with me for almost 50 years, because it is a timeless tune with a proto-funky groove, and is a product of Northern Louisiana via Chicago’s Checker Records.
After returning from a stint in the service in the mid-1950’s, Dale Hawkins was working in Stan Lewis’ record shop in Shreveport, LA and fronting his own band. In 1956, he bought some time for an off-hours recording session at KWKH’s broadcast studio in Shreveport and recorded his earliest sides. Lewis, who also distributed records and later owned the Jewel and Paula labels, got Leonard Chess to release some of those songs; and, when “Susie-Q” hit, further sessions resulted in an album and more singles. Although long associated with the rockabilly style, Hawkins’ blues and R&B influences are evident on “Susie-Q”. Bill Millar’s excellent notes to the Ace (UK) CD comp, Rock ‘N’ Roll Tornado, reveal that the burning Telecaster solos and the low-down, swampy, classic central riff by 15 year-old lead guitarist James Burton were influenced by the blues chops of such greats as Hubert Sumlin of Howlin’ Wolf’s band and Gatemouth Brown, among others. Prior to gigging with Hawkins, Burton had been a country music guitar prodigy, playing in the backing band on the KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride program; but Hawkins required him to listen to and learn the blues for the band’s club gigs – and the kid listened well. As Millar and others also point out, Hawkins’ lyrics on this song have similarities to the Clovers’ 1954 Atlantic side, “I’ve Got My Eyes On You” (from which it would seem John Lee Hooker also derived his 1956 Vee-Jay release, “Dimples”). Still, “Susie-Q” was something special.
Session details for this track are not completely resolved; but the three certainties are Hawkins, Burton, and Ron Lewis, who was on drums. Because Hawkins’ regular drummer, A. J. Tuminello was unavailable that night, Lewis (who was related to Stan), sat in, copying as best he could the patterns that Tuminello had developed for the song. While Lewis’ playing is a bit sloppy at times, the percussion is another key element to what makes this song so compelling. The far from straight sticking, heavy on the toms, and syncopated, loosely Afro-Cuban cowbell beat move toward a hip-swaying jungle groove. Another well-placed percussive element reminiscent of gospel music, the handclapping, was likely provided by friends of the band. Finally, Hawkins attributes the simple, poorly recorded bass playing to another Shreveport local, Sonny Trammell.
Although James Burton and Dale Hawkins actually wrote the song, when the record came out, credits were given to Hawkins, Stan Lewis, and Eleanor Broadwater, who was the wife of DJ Gene Nobles on Nashville’s R&B radio giant, WLAC. It was not unusual in the Fifties and Sixties for powerful DJ’s to get a cut of the royalty action to encourage them to play songs. Lewis took his part, it is assumed, for his efforts in getting the recording to Chess. But Burton, rightly, felt burned.
A gifted songwriter and strong vocalist, Hawkins also had a great ear for choosing young guitar slingers for his band back in the Fifties. Besides the legendary James Burton, who left the band soon after “Susie-Q” became a hit, Hawkins also had the then unknown Roy Buchanan as a sideman for a while. With only four songs that made the charts, Hawkins faded from general popularity by 1960, but has long been a favorite of collectors and rockabilly revivalists. He continues to perform and has made several appearances at the Ponderosa Stomp in recent years; and, from what I hear, he’s still got it.
Many of you may only know “Susie-Q” from John Fogerty’s quite decent 1968 rendition with Credence Clearwater Revival. But the original can’t be beat. It is a unique, seminal side that blurs the lines between rock, blues and R&B, revealing the gumbo-pot of influences cooking in so much music emerging from the South in that decade.
Dale, back then