Watch Your Step is the kind of record that you’re better for hearing.
There was a moment when it became hip to champion outsider artists such as Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston and the like. The artist’s story would usually follow this plot: Prodigious talent who suffered from mental illness grappled with their demons to push through and create great art. Ted Hawkins, whose 1982 debut, Watch Your Step, is now available on vinyl reissue, was an outsider artist, though not cut from the same cloth as Roky Erickson or Johnston. Born in Biloxi, Mississippi, his life was beset by poverty and legal problems. He came of age in a reform school, spent time at Louisiana’s Parchman Farm penitentiary, became a hobo and ultimately landed in Los Angeles.
Producer Bruce Bromberg first spotted Hawkins on the Venice Beach boardwalk in the 1970s, which led to a single with the Joliet label. Bromberg also taped a series of Hawkins originals, which the producer saw as the work of a singular voice in American music. The problem was, Hawkins slipped out of touch for a time. Bromberg was able to track down the musician, discovering that Hawkins was once more incarcerated. The decision was made to form the bulk of an LP for Rounder based on Hawkins’ demos, just a voice and guitar. With some careful navigation and negotiation, the singer posed for the cover of his debut LP in the prison yard, donning a pink shirt and holding a guitar.
Watch Your Step, upon its release, caused a considerable stir in the critical community. Rolling Stone awarded the LP five stars and writer Peter Guralnick enthused in the record’s liner notes that Hawkins had developed a “rural adaptation of contemporary soul music.” Indeed, the album carries elements of the rural with streams of country and blues flowing seamlessly into one another. Hawkins’ soothing vocals are strikingly similar to Sam Cooke’s, his intonation and phrasing impeccable, commanding. That said, Hawkins was not derivative. His performances sound today as though they’re still unfolding before our ears, years and years after their first issue. There’s an immediacy and freshness in his guitar playing and his singing.
The lyrical themes run the gamut of emotions and experiences. There are hints of broken hearts and longing throughout, though the narratives become more complex as they touch upon class struggle (such as in the breathtaking “Stay Close to Me”) and the peculiar sickness of alcohol addiction (“Sorry You’re Sick”). Meanwhile, “Stop Your Crying” captures the push and pull of intimate relationships, providing outsiders a glimpse of disappointment and tenderness with a genuineness that only Hawkins could have rendered.
A number of songs find Hawkins accompanied by a hot band (which included his longtime wife, Elizabeth). The band cooks with power and might throughout the titular number, the deceptively straightforward soul of “Bring It Home Daddy” and the glitzy “Sweet Baby.” The real corker remains “Who Got My Natural Comb?”—not only does it demonstrate the band’s ability to lock into a foot-stomping groove, it also showcases Hawkins’ ability as a folk artist capable of weaving seemingly anything into song. In this case it’s (you guessed it) a missing comb. While the song carries no deeper meaning, our vocalist makes it sound like the mission to find the item in question is the most important one of all time. (And probably the most fun too.) Still, it’s not the strangest. A sliver of an ode to an airline, “TWA” doesn’t seem as much out of place as it does possibly hallucinatory in its simplicity and earnestness.
Hawkins issued one more disc for the label, recorded once more with Bromberg. Titled Happy Hour, it featured guitar work from Robert Cray (as Night Train Clemons) and solidified Hawkins’ reputation with the English. He made his home in the U.K. for several years, where he experienced wide popularity before being deported. Once back in California, he took once more to the Boardwalk before being snatched up by the Geffen label, where he issued The Next Hundred Years in 1994, just a few months before his death at age 58.
His music has been championed by a variety of sources in the decades since his death, ranging from the Replacements to Anderson East. His small but remarkable output leaves listeners with an opportunity to full absorb the strange nuances of his character and his ability to transform a well-worn chestnut such as “There Stands the Glass” (found in its definitive edition on the Songs from Venice Beach record) into something all his own.
Whatever the demons were that made it difficult for Hawkins to find stability and become the star he clearly could have been, also entrenched was his sense of innocence, an apparent belief that the world could be transformed into something better once song, one guitar chord at a time. Watch Your Step is the kind of record that you’re better for hearing or owning, a celebration of song and of a voice that only comes along once in an artist’s lifetime.