Rockabilly pathfinder made mark with 'Susie-Q'

Dale Hawkins, the rockabilly pathfinder who made a national mark with his 1957 single “Susie-Q,” has died after a fight with colon cancer. He was 73.

Though he was active in the studio and on stage into his 70s, Hawkins is best known for his clamorous first hit, which featured striking lead work by teenage guitarist James Burton, later a mainstay of Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley’s bands.

Hawkins, who died Saturday in a Little Rock, AR, hospital, was known for his exceptional ear for guitarists: His other accompanists included Roy Buchanan and Presley’s original picker, Scotty Moore.

He was born Aug. 22, 1936 in Goldmine, LA. He was exposed to blues and R&B as a teen, when he worked behind the counter in prominent Shreveport retailer Stan Lewis’ record store. He cut a demo of “Susie-Q” at a local radio station in 1956. Positive listener response led Lewis to shop Hawkins to Chess Records in Chicago.

The remake of “Susie-Q,” issued by Chess’ Checker subsidiary, reached No. 27 on the national singles chart. He cut other singles for the label – “La-Do-Dada,” “My Babe,” “Tornado” – that are prized by rockabilly fans and collectors. But none made a major impact. He was popular enough to rate his own TV show in Philadelphia.

“Susie-Q” remains Hawkins’ most enduring number, familiar through ’60s covers by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones.

During the ’60s, Hawkins found success as a producer, helming such hits as the Five Americans’ “Western Union” and John Fred & the Playboy Band’s “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses).” He also released a searing 1969 album, “L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas,” which was re-released on CD by England’s Rev-Ola.

Hawkins was sidelined by drug addiction. After kicking his habit, he left the record industry to work as a motivational speaker. In 1986, he opened a Little Rock recording studio with royalties from “Susie-Q” that had accumulated over the years.

He returned to active duty as a musician in the ’90s, appearing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and releasing a hot indie-label album, “Wildcat Trainer,” in 1999. In recent years, he appeared at New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp festival.

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