Ted Hawkins' Early Fave Sees Daylight

As musicians go, the late Venice Beach busker Ted Hawkins seems to have been the prototypical fish out of water when he convened with artist/producer Michael Messer and his band in a London studio in

As musicians go, the late Venice Beach busker Ted Hawkins seems to have been the prototypical fish out of water when he convened with artist/producer Michael Messer and his band in a London studio in 1989 to record a group of songs that have morphed into "Nowhere to Run."

Because Hawkins never formally studied music and had rarely worked with other musicians, his unique and often charming approach to recording required, as Messer puts it, some "decoding."

"After we decided what songs we were going to record, I sat and decoded them for the other musicians. And 'decoding' is the word," Messer says with a laugh. "The way that Ted explained how he played, his keys, and his whole approach to playing music were slightly off the wall."

Hawkins, the soulful storyteller who passed away from a stroke in 1995 at age 58, was known for, among other things, strumming only major chords on his old Martin with acrylic fingernails. In the studio, Messer says, the Mississippi-born Hawkins would "talk about big notes and small notes, instead of low notes and high notes. He would say, 'I hear this with lots of big notes happening.' He would often mean chords."

"But, he knew exactly what he wanted, and the only way he could put it across to you was either to say, 'Have you heard the record by so and so?' or 'Did you see "High Noon?" You know that bit at the end?' That kind of stuff."

With Hawkins using such descriptions -- and often humming drum, piano, and bass sounds -- the songs actually became easy to arrange and record, Messer says. "He would hum it and then we, as a band, built it. He was very creative, and I think that's something that's missing from the world's perception of him."

Messer oversaw both the sound and look of "Nowhere to Run" (released Oct. 23, 2001 on U.K. indie Catfish). He did the same for Catfish's previous issuing of Hawkins vault material, "The Unstoppable," a live recording released earlier in 2001. The 11-track "Nowhere" -- distributed in the U.K. by Pinnacle and in the U.S. by DNA -- will probably surprise fans, he adds. Unlike most Hawkins recordings -- which feature only the artist's voice and rhythm-guitar playing -- these songs (recorded when Hawkins was living in the small seaside English town of Bridlington) are embellished with saxophone and Carribean rhythms and heavy doses of piano and slide guitar.

Messer says he considered the title "Off the Beach," so as to affirm the difference between these songs and most of Hawkins' other albums, which are based on songs (originals and covers) he strummed dawn to dusk on the Venice Beach boardwalk near Los Angeles. Instead, "Nowhere" (which features rare photos of Hawkins) takes its name from a song of the same name -- one of a handful of tracks on this album that now see daylight for the first time in the U.S.

"It sounds like a Ted Hawkins record because of that voice, which is so unique, and also that quirky writing style," Messer says, "but it's quite a polished-sounding record," even moreso than Hawkins' major-label debut, 1994's "The Next Hundred Years" (DGC). "Although 'The Next Hundred Years' has a polish, it still sounds like a busker singing with other musicians. The acoustic guitar is quite loud up front, and his loose street style is up front, whereas on ["Nowhere"] it's more like a slick-sounding Sam Cooke record.

"To me, the thing is with Ted's material, it's so '50s in its approach," Messer continues. "The way he wrote it, the way he structured it was just so close to that Otis Redding, Sam Cooke [sound] that I just felt that slick, polished sound was where we were heading. It was also more en vogue then, in the late '80s."

And all this was very much by request, Messer explains: "Ted talked to me about the fact that he didn't always want to be perceived as 'the Venice Beach busker.'"

Prior to making "The Next Hundred Years," Hawkins considered his work with Messer to be his finest, Hawkins' former manager Nancy Meyer says. "I think he enjoyed that experience tremendously," she says. "I'm sure it was because of the full-band sound. I think he really loved that, because that emulated some of his favorite influences, the people he was listening to on the radio" -- people like Cooke and Redding. "They had full bands and fully produced records. And I think ["Nowhere"] was taking him closer to where he saw himself, if he was ever to have commercial success."

"The records he made before that," Meyer continues, "there were producers, there was somebody who took him off the street and put him in the studio. But I think it was important for him to be involved in the arrangements, and for him to be able to explain what he wanted."

Khaled Abdullah, director of the Guildford, England-based Catfish, says "Nowhere" illustrates Hawkins' progression as an artist. "It kind of acts as a stepping stone for a guy who went from busking on the beach to recording for a major label. To me, that's where it fits. It bridges that gap."

More than anything else, the album is a chance for Hawkins' fans to add to their collections and maybe fill that gap, says Gary Johnson, co-owner of Rockaway Records in Los Angeles. Although "Nowhere" is the seventh posthumously released Hawkins set, there's room for more. Why? Simply, Johnson says, "because he was just so great."

Reflecting on his work on both "The Unstoppable" and "Nowhere" nearly seven years since Hawkins' passing, Messer, now 45, says he found the latter to be much more emotionally draining.

"Having produced and played on this record, I felt more attached to it," Messer says. "It's like looking at photographs of people who've gone -- it's quite sad to deal with. But when you listen to music of people you knew and try to work with it, sometimes it's like they're in the room."

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.

To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.