Spectropop remembers

JENNELL HAWKINS (1938 - 2006)

Jennell Hawkins, who recorded on several Los Angeles R&B labels and scored a hit on the pop charts in 1961 with 'Moments To Remember', has died after a long illness following a stroke.

A student at Jefferson and Freemont High Schools, Jennell gained her first singing experience with Ray Brewster, Bill Piper and Marc Gordon in the Fidelitones. (The group never recorded, but Gordon eventually became a successful producer of acts like the Fifth Dimension.)

While at school, Jennell met Richard Berry (of 'Louie, Louie' fame). "I was in the tenth grade, Richard was in the eleventh," she recalled in a 1986 interview. "We were in music class together. Richard was a quiet, deep-spoken young man who was into writing. I was a church musician, he was an R&B musician. We sort of stuck together. Everyone else was into jazz and said we'd never go any further than high school. We just laughed because we were already gigging at the Shrine Auditorium and places like that."

One day early in 1954 Berry told Jennell he was going to the studio and asked her if she wanted to accompany him. "He didn't say anything about recording. We met [arranger] Maxwell Davis and ended up recording that same afternoon," she recalled. The result was 'Each Step', which was released by Flair Records under the monicker Ricky & Jennell.

The experience of making a record helped Jennell establish herself in local music circles. A reluctant vocalist, she preferred playing the piano and organ, so when Berry asked her to join Fanita Barrett, Gloria Jones and Annette Williams in the Dreamers, the group with which he regularly recorded, she initially declined. Her piano, however, was heard on 'My Aching Heart', a 1955 release on Flip Records by the Flippers. Jennell subsequently joined the Dreamers on the same label for 'Since You've Been Gone', on which she sang lead.

Also during 1955-56, she teamed with Mary Ann Miles, Dora Lee Pickett and Darlene Powell in the Combonettes, who recorded three singles for Jake Porter's Combo label, including their best-known side, 'Hi Diddle Diddle'.

As a solo vocalist, Jennell enjoyed her biggest success late in 1961 with the Richard Berry-written tune 'Moments To Remember' on Titanic, which was reissued as 'Moments' on Amazon, a label owned by the DJ Rudy Harvey. This led to the release of two LPs, the jazzy 'The Many Moods Of Jenny' and the more rocking 'Moments To Remember', each album containing very differently arranged versions of her hit song. Around the same time, Flip re-released 'Since You've Been Gone' as Jennell Hawkins and the Dreamers.

Another single, her version of Barrett Strong's 'Money (That's What I Want)', reached the R&B chart in 1962. Jennell also released 'In The Groove' on Harvey's Azuza label, but his shady business practices (which may well have ultimately led to his unsolved murder) left her disillusioned with the recording industry and she quit the business, dedicating herself to her marriage and the church. For many years she drove a hearse for several funeral homes and played the organ at funerals.

In recent years she appeared regularly at clubs, most notably with Big Jay McNeely, and the Jennell Hawkins Sextet supported Johnnie Morrisette on his recording of 'I'm Hungry', a popular funk item. In 2002 she performed with the Dreamers at a Los Angeles Doo Wop Society show. Jennell Hawkins was being honoured by L.A.'s mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, along with Etta James, Esther Phillips and others, at a Legends of Central Avenue celebration at City Hall on the day she died.

(A combination of articles by Jim Dawson in Right Track [#131, 11/2006] and by Steve Propes in his book L.A. R&B Vocal Groups [Big Nickel Publications, 2001]. Picture courtesy of Peter Gibbon/Ace Records.)

Jennell Hawkins Brown, singer and musician: born April 8th, 1938 - died October 13th, 2006