If the progression of tunes on Ted Hawkins' recently released The Next Hundred Years (DGC) reads like an emotional rags-to-riches story, that's because the life it documents is just that. To compress a long story into a blurb, Hawkins was born to a father he never met and an alcoholic prostitute in Mississippi in 1936. He spent most of his early life in and out of reform schools -- where he was turned on to music by a happenstance visit from Professor Longhair -- and jail. Hawkins married twice, and after his second wife died, took a train from New York to Los Angeles in 1966. In L.A., a down-and-out Hawkins took to playing on the streets, recording a few tapes for a producer friend that were later released (in 1982) as Watch Your Step on Rounder. In 1985, he recorded two volumes of cover tunes in Nashville that made him a minor phenom in Europe. He lived in England from 1986 until 1990, when he returned to Los Angeles to discover that the acclaim he'd found on the Continent didn't translate back to America. So Hawkins sat a milk crate on the Venice Beach boardwalk and played his songs to passersby to make his meager rent.
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That's where DGC A&R reps Todd Sullivan and David Berg "discovered" Hawkins and signed him on as unlikely labelmate to Peter Gabriel and Guns and Roses, leading to the recording of The Next Hundred Years -- a soul-drenched shoo-in for any reasonable list of the year's best albums.
Hawkins' voice -- singed with an optimistic weariness -- is comfortably compared to that of his idol Sam Cooke, and the songs that he writes draw soul and country styles together in an exclusively major-chord monument to perseverance and hope that has no equal I'm aware of in contemporary music. I don't know how to state my awe more clearly: The Next Hundred Years is a truly extraordinary record by an exceptionally honest songwriter and superlatively engaging vocalist. And if you wonder how it will translate live, remember -- this is a guy who stopped two jaded A&R weasels dead in their tracks on the street. If this show doesn't move you, you've been planted.
-- Brad Tyer
Ted Hawkins performs at 9 p.m., Thursday, November 10, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Tickets cost $6. Call 869-COOL for info.