Graded on a Curve:
Ted Hawkins,
Watch Your Step

The first album from Biloxi, MI-born and longtime Venice Beach, CA-based singer-songwriter-guitarist Ted Hawkins is one of those beauties that makes a lifetime of record collecting worth it. Originally released by Rounder in 1982 and composed of recordings made earlier, Watch Your Step finds Hawkins intermingling blues, country, folk, gospel, and a whole lot of soul into a mode of expression that’s simultaneously personal and warmly familiar; he cut more albums, but none were as striking as his debut, which gets its first-time vinyl reissue on August 3 via Craft Recordings.

The story of Ted Hawkins is a tale of struggle in Mississippi and later in California, where along with playing as a street performer in Venice Beach he also did a stretch in prison. That’s where he was when, based on the strength of these recordings made by producer Bruce Bromberg in the early ’70s, he signed to Rounder; the cover picture above was taken in the yard of the California State Penitentiary.

Like any niche of the musical landscape, the recordings of street performers vary in both content and quality. Hawkins is immediately of interest because, while out of step with pretty much anything that was coming out in 1982, his eccentricities are palatable as the focus of original, and more importantly personal, material keeps his highly approachable nature far away from any street corner oldies show.

However, it’s worth adding that fans of good oldies radio (does such a thing still exist?) are likely to take a special cotton to Hawkins’ work, specifically due to the resemblance of his voice to Mr. Sam Cooke, a likeness close enough that the aforementioned autobiographical uniqueness becomes an important factor in Watch Your Step’s success (it’s worth noting that it’s difficult to dream up any circumstance where sounding like Cooke would be a bad thing).

If the similarity is apparent in the opening title track, the song is rather unlike anything from Sam’s catalog; in terms of emphatic temperament regarding love stuff, it brings to mind Joe Tex. But what’s immediately striking is the paring down to just vocals and acoustic guitar. For the next track “Bring It on Home to Daddy,” the set retains the Cooke-ian vibe while immediately shifting gears into a full-band soul zone complete with horns, Bromberg having teamed him with the group of bluesman Phillip Walker.

A single in this mode was issued on Bromberg’s Joliet label in 1971, with both sides (and a little more) included here. Alongside the then-unreleased “Bring It on Home to Daddy,” the mainstream soul workouts of the title track and “Sweet Baby” are likeable but largely minor. Essentially, they just add a touch of (arguably superfluous) variety to Watch Your Step’s strongest material, which like the opener requires nothing more than Hawkins’ singing, his songs, and his guitar.

Well, that’s not exactly right; between the Cooke-ish sweetness of “If You Love Me” and “The Lost Ones” sits “Don’t Lose Your Cool,” where Hawkins’ wife Elizabeth provides backing vocals to reinforce a splendid ambiance recalling the heyday of hot gospel. What’s important is that the lyrical weight of “The Lost Ones” transcends cliché as the full band assisted “Who Got My Natural Comb?” takes a cool turn into lighthearted, somewhat Otis Redding-like territory.

“Peace & Happiness” and “Stop Your Crying” thrive on Hawkins’ conviction, with the demo nature of the recordings clear but lacking nothing, not even when the scenario gets scaled back to just voice and handclaps for “Put in a Cross.” Again, the non-trite lyrical nature of “Sorry You’re Sick” highlights the struggle in Hawkins’ background, while the brief “TWA” delivers a left-field prospective commercial jingle for the defunct Trans World Airlines.

If an oddity, “TWA” isn’t disruptive to the overall flow, and it strengthens an out-of-time ambience that in the end is in no way calculatedly throwback. This is not to say that “Don’t Lose Your Cool” and the brilliant late-album standout “I Gave Up All I Had” don’t register like uncovered early ’60s gems from the vaults of some obscure label. They do, but in a thoroughly non-studied way, which makes them quite valuable. Finale “Stay Close to Me” integrates everything that makes Hawkins worthwhile; the lyrical quirks and warmth, the clarity that he’s suffered hurt, the sincerity, and most of all, the talent.

Watch Your Step didn’t sell much upon release, but it was acclaimed (getting a five-star review in Rolling Stone), which insured the follow-up Happy Hour (also originally on Rounder). Belated and fleeting European success followed, and after a return to California, a comeback of sorts for Geffen with The Next Hundred Years. He died unexpectedly of a stroke a few months later on New Year’s Day of 1995.

If Hawkins’ subsequent recordings strike this writer as lesser, they are in no way botch-jobs, and it’s assured that both are the favorites of some. But it seems clear that of all his output, it’s Watch Your Step that’s the essential acquisition; the byproduct of highly popular streams of American musical achievement, it stands as a testament to an artistry of accessible individuality. There isn’t another record quite like it, and it’s great that it’s seeing reissue.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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