“I like the way you walk
I like the way you talk, Suzie Q”
—Hawkins, Lewis, Broadwater
“North Louisiana had its own thing,” says Dale Hawkins. “We had a different mixture but still had the funk.” Anyone who’s ever heard the low-down, cow bell-infused swamp groove that Hawkins’ signature “Suzie Q” is built upon would no doubt have to agree. “The beat was there first,” he’s always stated emphatically when asked about the 1956 rock ’n’ roll classic that he perfected on the stages of the Bossier City Strip, right across the Red River from Shreveport.
“On the Strip in Bossier, if you couldn’t play Jimmy [Reed], if you couldn’t pay Bo [Diddley], man, you’d better find yourself someplace else because you wasn’t going to be around no more!”
The area’s biggest musical export may have been the Louisiana Hayride—the most influential country music radio show in the nation aside from the Grand Ole Opry—but until the popularity of “Suzie Q” put him on its stage, Hawkins had no illusions of taking his place next to hillbilly stars of the day like Webb Pierce and Slim Whitman.
“People call my music rockabilly, but I was more into rockin’ blues,” says the Goldmine, Louisiana native. “The little town I was raised in wasn’t that big but we had all kinds of music. I got to listen to country music, but I also got to listen to some good blues and of course, gospel. All of the churches down there sang the same songs, they just sang them with a different feeling and spirit.”
The idea for “Suzie Q” was sparked one night on the strip when Hawkins’ drummer A.J. Tuminello came up with a hypnotic backbeat that just wouldn’t quit. “It was just an accidental thing. We were messing around, having fun and I said, ‘Wait a minute! We got something happening, boys!’”
“Once we got the intro and the chord changes, we worked a good three months just putting it together.” Hawkins’ guitarist at the time was James Burton, who would later gain fame as Ricky Nelson’s right hand man, followed by stints with Elvis, Gram Parsons and many more, was only 15 years old at the time.
“The only way we could get James in the club to play was to go through the bathroom windows. At the time, he was more of a country player in the mode of Merle Travis or Chet Atkins. He didn’t have the blues white-boy style yet. So I brainwashed his ass. When he heard it, he could get into it and then finally he could pick it. But I about drove that boy crazy.”
“I’ve been playing music all my life but I’ve always been best at putting things together,” continues Hawkins. His vision for “Suzie Q” was an amalgamation of the traditional “Baby Please Don’t Go,” the Clovers’ “I’ve Got My Eyes On You” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin.’”
After cutting an acetate of the song for further fine tuning, Hawkins knew exactly what he wanted. “I used a sax player on the demo, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen with the song. All I wanted was just three to four pieces. And I knew it wasn’t going to happen with an upright bass.”
As it turned out, his timing couldn’t have been better. “The only electric bass in town was owned by Sonny Trammell, the steel guitar player who played on the Hayride. He’d just gotten it in two days before we cut the session. So he came up and brought the bass. Radio station KWKH was the only place in town that had a good mono tape machine so we cut it over there with Bob Sullivan, an engineer who was from our part of the country and understood. We only had an hour because we had to do it in between the time that they would switch radio towers.
“We cut five takes, sent them to Leonard Chess [owner of Chess Records] and that son-of-a-gun sat on it for about four months. Meanwhile, I’m still in Bossier selling fish bait, doing whatever I can to keep it going because everybody else has already left and got a job with somebody else! Finally, Chuck Dunaway, a DJ friend of mine said, ‘Let’s send it up to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic.’ We sent it to Jerry and he called back and said, ‘I love it, I’ll take it.’ I said, ‘Well, Mr. Wexler, Mr. Chess has got it but he won’t call me back. And when he does, he says it’s coming out but I’m getting hungry down here.’ Wexler said, ‘What?? You tell him this for me: You tell that motherfucker that I said to either fucking shit or get off the pot.’ I said, ‘Just like that?’ He said, ‘Just exactly like that. And if he says anything, it’ll be out just as soon as I can get the master done.”
“I called Leonard and said, ‘Mr. Chess, I don’t think you’re really into the song but Mr. Wexler up at Atlantic Records said to tell you this: to either fucking shit or get off the pot.’ There was a pause there for maybe 10 seconds and if you knew Leonard, you’d know that that was a long time. He said, ‘I’ll call you right back.’ Three days later, it was in the streets.
“Bam! It went rhythm and blues first, when it hit number seven in the R&B charts then the pop jocks started playing it. Instead of being able to hit it all at once, we had to break it city by city so it only got into around 29 or 30 in the pop charts. But the thing sold and sold and sold and sold; it opened a lot of doors for me.”
Those doors included not only the Hayride but Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where many of his fans were surprised to see that he was white.
“I went in this radio station in Philadelphia, KOKA, and this black jockey said, ‘You’re Dale Hawkins?’ He cracked up, interviewed me and then the phone lines lit up. Mothers were calling saying, ‘We love your music but you need to work on your diction for your race, son.’ I’d say, ‘Yes, ma’am, sure will!’”
“Suzie Q” would go on to be recorded by countless artists, most notably the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival, who based their entire aesthetic around the song’s murky mystique. The track’s echo was the one thing that Hawkins had no control over.
“Leonard had just built a new studio there at 2120 South Michigan and he had built this echo chamber. He ran the whole track through the echo chamber to get that kind of feedback sound of the reverb. That closed all of the instruments in together as one.
“Later, I was England playing with Albert Lee and Albert was playing his ass off. I said, ‘Man, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m using this third string to try to get the reverb sound you used to get.’ I didn’t say a word; I just backed up. We didn’t have reverb in 1956, man!”