In 1972, blues producer Bruce Bromberg recorded a collection of them, which were eventually released in 1982 as "Watch Your Step" on Rounder Records.
The record has since become a collector's item and rates a five-star review in the "Rolling Stone Record Guide." A new Rounder album of Hawkins originals, "Happy Hour"--produced by Robert Cray's studio team of Bromberg and Dennis Walker--was released last month.
After his release from Vacaville in 1982, Hawkins settled into a niche as a professional street singer. Venice Beach provided a relaxed environment, as well as proximity to the modest duplex in Inglewood he shared with Elizabeth, their son Ted III and several daughters by Elizabeth's previous marriage.
Enter H. Thorp Minister III, an aspiring young entrepreneur with a few contacts, not much experience and no working capital. "I was amazed at his talent," Minister said, recalling the first time he spotted Hawkins performing in 1985. "I had the desire and figured, 'What a great opportunity.' "
Hawkins, of course, had heard this tune before. "So many guys had given me their cards, and I never heard from them again," he noted.
But Minister was different.
From a sympathetic bank officer in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, he managed to draw $15,000 in loans. He bought Hawkins a new Martin guitar, then arranged a throat operation for Hawkins to get rid of polyps he'd developed. Next he flew the singer to Nashville and produced a recording of "On the Boardwalk," and the rest of the material for the " . . . At Venice Beach" album, which he released last fall.
"Bless his heart, I'll never forget that," said Hawkins. "Sometimes we don't get along, you know, but he brought me a long, long ways. I guess you could say I owe him my life."
"On the Boardwalk" caught the ear of BBC Radio One deejay Andy Kershaw, who flew to Los Angeles and promised to promote Hawkins aggressively if he'd relocate to England. Elizabeth Hawkins wasn't too excited about the prospect, but to Ted, "It felt like a fresh chance, a new dimension. . . ."
Shortly after his arrival in England, Hawkins toured with folk-rocker Billy Bragg, and followed it up with a solo performance that was videotaped before 1,100 fans at London's Town and Country club.
"It was almost too much for me," recalls Hawkins, who was fighting recurring throat problems at the time. "The tension was high. I was scared. . . ."
Hawkins still relishes the excitement of that night: "I never felt anything like it. The people went wild, trying to pull me from the stage. They had these looks in their eyes, and they were yelling, 'Ted! Ted! Ted!' I thought, Lord have mercy, this is it."
Recently, Hawkins assembled a four-piece band for his stage show. When not performing, he spends his days in the village of Bridlington, on the North Sea.
"(It's) a little town where everybody knows everybody," he says. "I can ride my bicycle or walk down to the sea, sit by the wharf and hum a little tune--and before you know it I have a song."
Hawkins has hired an accountant, and speaks optimistically about building security for his family, including real estate investments.
For Hawkins' family, success poses a dilemma. "We're very happy for him, and very proud," said Elizabeth Hawkins, who remains in Inglewood.
"But we miss him and we want him to come back home. It's very painful. . . . But I've loved him for 21 years, so you know that's some love! So we'll back him in whatever endeavor he wants."
After 50 years, Hawkins figures he's ready to pay the price as well.
"I love Venice Beach from where I sit right now. I still have the milk crate I used to sit on there, and one of these days I'm going to come back there and sit in my spot. But not until America realizes I'm one of theirs. I'd have to be a fool to go back where I'm invisible."