The Sixth Passenger – Hawkshaw Hawkins

I’ve written before about the 1959 plane crash at Clear Lake, which claimed the lives of three rock and roll stars — Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. I’ve also written about an eerily-similar accident that occurred a few years later, one involving country music headliners Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. But there was a third victim at that crash too, and it’s time to tell the story of Hawkshaw Hawkins.

Harold Franklin ‘Hawkshaw’ Hawkins was the personification of an old expression, usually uttered with a touch of awe; he was a ‘tall drink of water’. But even though he did measure six feet, six inches — and his Western hat made him look even bigger — he wasn’t just tall. He also possessed a strong, deep singing voice and a ton of warmth and charisma. (You can see his stage presence in the video below, which shows him in a decidedly non-PC moment with ‘Little’ Jimmy Dickens, who often poked fun at his own small stature.)

Hawkins grew up in Depression-era West Virginia, where a neighbor gave him the name of a popular comic strip detective after young Harold helped him find some lost fishing tackle. Hawkshaw Hawkins turned out to be a perfect name, especially when he began making appearances on local radio while still a teenager.

As he grew to adulthood, young Hawkins continued to work his way up in radio and even toured for a while. When World War II started he joined up and spent a lot of time in battle but eventually ended up in the Far East, where he managed to make some appearances on Army radio. After his discharge and return to West Virginia, he began again working in regional radio and eventually became a regular on the popular program, Wheeling Jamboree.

He also began hitting the recording studio, and soon found success with what would become his signature song — at least for the early part of his career — “The Sunny Side of the Mountain.” Over the post-war years and on into the Fifties, he continued to hit the charts with songs like “Pan American,” “Dog House Boogie,” and “Slow Poke,” and by the middle of the decade he’d also made many appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and TV’s Ozark Jamboree.

By the late Fifties, Hawkins had married fellow singer Jean Shephard and the twosome soon bought a place near Nashville. Although Hawkins settled into a side life as a genteel horse breeder, he continued to perform and make records for his fans. But by 1963, record sales had slowed a little and he cut a new song that he felt would put him back on top. He was right — sort of. After he died in a fiery plane crash in March of that same year, “Lonesome 7-7203” became a huge Number-One hit. But the star — who had left behind a pregnant wife — didn’t live to see it.

(LATER: sorry, but video no longer available.)

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