NOVEMBER 11, 1993 – Musician/bandleader ERSKINE HAWKINS (b. July 26, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama as Erskine Ramsay Hawkins) died at age 79 at his home in Willingboro Township, New Jersey after a brief visit with his sister in Alabama before he was able to return to resume playing with his band at the Concord at the age of 79. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, alongside his sister, in Birmingham, Alabama.
Hawkins was the son of Edward Hawkins, a US soldier who lost his life in military action during WWI. He was named by his parents after Alabama industrialist Erskine Ramsay who was rewarding parents with savings accounts for them for doing so. After his father died in France, the family moved in with his mother Cary’s relatives across the street from the Tuggle Institute, a private school for African American boys (now Tuggle Elementary School). Hawkins attended Tuggle from the age of six, excelling in music and athletics. Under the direction of the school’s band director, he first played drums, trombone, and saxophone, before concentrating his talents on the trumpet when he was 13. He was nearly always at the school, either playing music or at the gym, where he played basketball, football, and tennis.
Music and dancing were plentiful at the local juke joints and a fancy ballroom frequented by mill and railroad workers, who often rented tuxedos from a nearby shop. As a young child, Hawkins played music in the local park and was inspired by the sounds he heard. As a teenager, Hawkins attended Birmingham Industrial High School (now known as Parker High School) under famed music educator John T. “Fess” Whatley, and formed a band with Bob Range, Haywood Henry, and other boys from the school, eventually playing in Birmingham’s clubs. At school, he played in the band directed by Fess Whatley, a teacher who trained numerous African-American musicians, many of whom populated the bands of famed band leaders such as Duke Ellington, Lucky Millinder, Louis Armstrong and Skitch Henderson (of the NBC Orchestra.)
In 1930, at the age of 16, Hawkins graduated from Birmingham Industrial and moved to Montgomery to attend State Teachers College (now Alabama State University) on a tennis scholarship, but gave that up to major in music. Of the college’s three different bands at the time, the Collegians, the Revelers, and the Cavaliers, the best musicians played in the Collegians, which eventually included Hawkins and his friends Henry, Range, and Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb. In the early 1930s, the bands toured to make money for the school, with earnings beyond salaries and expenses sent to Montgomery. While touring the South and Midwest, the Collegians gained a reputation as one of the best college bands in the country. Led by J. B. Sims, it played jazz and dance tunes, but also military music and symphonic pieces. Hawkins graduated in 1934, but stayed on to teach music and play with the band.
Hawkins and the Collegians first earned fame in 1934, when touring the Northeast. While in Asbury Park, New Jersey, musicians from New York City came to hear them play, and the band was invited to the Harlem Opera House and Brooklyn’s Fox Folly. Given the chance to turn professional and make more money, Hawkins and most members decided to stay in New York, with Hawkins replacing Sims as bandleader. During their first few years, they played various clubs in New York, including the Apollo Theater, as well as school dances and other venues, and continued touring. A bit rough and unpolished early on, the band developed a more refined hard-swinging approach popular with dancers. Specializing in medium-fast tempos, mixing swing tunes with ballads, and maintaining a bluesy quality, the band’s music reflected the influences of Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Lunceford, and Count Basie.
In 1935, Hawkins married Florence Browning, a schoolteacher (who appeared in the film “That Man of Mine”). The following year, the band began recording for Vocalion Records as the ‘Bama State Collegians featuring Erskine Hawkins. Like countless trumpet players of the time, Hawkins was profoundly influenced by Louis Armstrong. From Armstrong, Hawkins learned how to dazzle an audience with flourishes in the upper register, frequently ending songs with bursts of high notes. It was this showmanship, not to mention his ability to emulate Armstrong’s solos, that made Hawkins the natural choice to take over as leader when Shims left the band in 1936. By 1938 it was known as Erskine Hawkins (the Twentieth-Century Gabriel) and His Orchestra, to reflect the members’ independence from their former school. In 1938 members signed a recording contract with the RCA Bluebird, and later RCA Victor labels, a relationship that lasted until 1950.
Hawkins was dubbed “The 20th Century Gabriel.” He is most remembered for co-composing the jazz standard “Tuxedo Junction” (1939). His best-known composition, it referred to a streetcar intersection on the Ensley-Fairfield line in Birmingham that was a center of nightlife for African Americans from the 1920s through the 1950s, comparable to Harlem in New York City. The song was co-written by Hawkins and bandmates (and fellow saxophonists) Bill Johnson and Julian Dash. It is also interesting to note that the song’s most memorable trumpet solo was not played by Hawkins, but by Dud Bascomb. It was actually quite common for Bascomb to take the more sophisticated, jazzier solos, while Hawkins’s delivered his customary onslaught of high-not pyrotechnics. Hawkins’s playing style did not always endear him to the critics. He was frequently taken to task for “showboating,” a criticism that was occasionally leveled at Louis Armstrong as well. While his playing style was certainly designed to grab attention, Hawkins was not a spotlight hog. A large part of the band’s success stemmed from the virtuosity of all its soloists, and each was given ample opportunity to show off his chops.
“Tuxedo Junction” became a popular hit during World War II, rising to #7 nationally (a version by the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra) and to #1 nationally (a version by the Glenn Miller Orchestra). Vocalists who were featured with Erskine’s orchestra include Ida James, Delores Brown, and Della Reese.
During 1936 through 1938, he recorded for Vocalion Records as Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians. In 1938, he signed with RCA Victor Records and began recording on their Bluebird label as, simply, Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra. That same year, Hawkins hooked up with Moe Gale, a well-connected booking agent and majority-owner of the Savoy ballroom. Hawkins and his Orchestra became one of the house bands at the Savoy, and alternated with the Chick Webb band so that dancers could have uninterrupted music each night, often using “Tuxedo Junction” as their sign-off song before the next band would take the stage. At the Savoy, Hawkins and his group often engaged in “battles of the bands” with guest bands, including Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Lionel Hampton. For several years, concerts at the Savoy were also broadcast on the radio.
In the mid 1940s, Hawkins was transferred to the main RCA Victor label, recording many of his greatest hits for both labels during this decade. He remained with them until 1950 when he switched over to Coral Records. He continued to record for many years. During the ‘50s he began to work with smaller groups, and during his later years he sometimes played rhythm and blues. Hawkins and his wife eventually became estranged and she worked in the Catskills.
By 1953, Hawkins was forced to reduce the big band to a small combo, as swing music gave way to rhythm & blues and bebop, but the larger group occasionally had reunions. In the 1960s, he regularly played the Embers Club in New York City, and from 1967 to 1989 played the Concord Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountain resort area and lived in Willingboro, New Jersey, with his second wife, Gloria Dumas.
Hawkins performed in the lobby bar and show nightclub at The Concord Resort Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, New York from 1967 to 1993 with his last performing group Joe Vitale piano, Dudly Watson bass, Sonny Rossi vocals & clarinet, and George Leary drums.
In 1978, Erskine Hawkins became one of the first five artists inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1989, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Hawkins was a contemporary of another Birmingham jazz musician, Sun Ra. The story of the Hawkins legacy continues to be told today, during tours of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame Museum, by Ray Reach (Director of Student Jazz Programs) and Frank Adams, (Director of Education, Emeritus) at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
On his final Sunday night radio show (July 26, 2009) Malcolm Laycock celebrated the 95th anniversary of Hawkins’ birth, by featuring music performed by Hawkins. In 2011, the story of Erskine Hawkins and the Bama State Collegians was the subject of a Florida State University Film School MFA Thesis Film “The Collegians,” written and directed by Bryan Lewis.
During his career Hawkins recorded dozens of songs, but he was most productive from 1936-1950, recording for the Vocalion and RCA Bluebird labels. In the early 1950s, Hawkins also recorded for Coral and King Records. His last recording was an album featuring a reunion of his old bandmates in 1971.
Hawkins received many awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate in music from Alabama State Teachers College in 1947. In 1978 he was among the first inductees into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and was given a Lifework Award for Performing Achievement by the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1989. Since the mid-1980s his birthday has been celebrated each July at the “Function in the Junction” in Birmingham, and the park near the old Tuxedo Junction was renamed Erskine Hawkins Park in his honor. He returned regularly to his home town to receive these honors and to celebrate his birthday.