Little Hawk was rough on Big Hawk’s feathers inside a New Hope recording studio while they worked on a track for “Christmas Songs About the Birth of Jesus,” set to be released Thanksgiving Day.
As NYC’s Lee Hawkins, Jr., put his father, Lee Hawkins, Sr., of Maplewood, through vocal paces during recording of “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” the junior Hawk’s businesslike tone belied the fact that he was directing the first gospel singer he ever idolized.
“That’s how he was with me when I was growing up,” said Hawk Jr., explaining why he required his daddy to do countless takes.
Unnaturally imperturbable, the elder Hawk never seemed ruffled by his little bird, a music producer, arranger and recording artist whose main jobs are Wall Street Journal news editor and on-camera personality for WSJ interviews with business, news and high-profile celebrities.
Without complaint the elder Hawkins sang the phrases repeatedly for his son, and did eventually hit those notes exactly the way his perfectionist son desired, as you can hear this week when that track is released on streaming services and iTunes. Little Hawk’s love was more fully on display after the recording session when he took selfies with Big Hawk.
“Making a Christmas album has re-connected me on a spiritual level, in a way I haven’t been in a long time,” Hawkins Jr. told me. “I decided to do a Christmas album after Kid Kelly at SiriusXM put my single of ‘Mary Did You Know?’ into the rotation of SiriusXM’s ‘Holly’ channel last year. That was a big boost and motivator for me. I had always wanted to do a Christmas album, so I tried one song first. When it got put on the radio and the response was good, I figured I should do a whole project. I don’t have any Frosty, Santa Claus or Rudolph songs on this album. It’s really an album about the birth of Jesus. It’s brought me back to a time when I was with my dad at St. Paul’s Mt. Olivet Baptist Church and sometimes we would even sing at little storefront churches,” he said with a smile.
That was when Little Hawk was Big Hawk’s enchanted shadow.
“We would go to church for three hours on Sunday,” said the WSJer. “Then we would go to eat and afterward my dad and I would break off from my mom [Roberta] and my sisters [Tammi, Tiffany ] and go sing at these storefront churches. They would have these four-member doo-wop groups from the South that would travel around in a van. They had these tight harmonies. At the end of the night they would pass a hat around because sometimes these little churches barely had the money to keep on the lights. So they would pass around the offering tray and tell us we couldn’t leave until they got the amount of money they needed.”
Recalling those times made him laugh heartily.
“But the music was incredible. It was music I feel so blessed to have been a part of as a young person, singing with people who were one or two generations removed from slavery,” said Hawkins.
Until this August day, when he worked in a recording session after the National Association of Black Journalists had adjourned, I had only met the gentle side of Lee Hawkins Jr.
New York City hadn’t seemed to rub off on him completely, however, despite opportunities to interview some of celebrity’s most brash, like Joan Rivers.
Since starting his long-form video interviews for WSJ about four years ago, Hawkins has talked to heavyweights, such as: Clive Davis, Chris Noth, Maria Sharapova, Daymond John, Robert DeNiro, Halle Berry, 50 Cent, Kerry Washington, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. This month, Hawkins is scheduled to interview Angela Bassett and Timbaland.
And yet, when Prince invited a chosen few NABJers to Paisley Park so he could pontificate about the music industry, Hawkins was ticked not to be among them. We talked about that, why he was more interested in interviewing Matthew Knowles than his daughter Beyoncé, and many other topics.
Q: What were you doing when you were working with your dad on “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
A: I was listening for that resonance that he has that I’ve heard all my life in the church. My father has a really powerful voice. He’s a native of Alabama and that’s where our tradition is from, the South. I was trying to get him to sing with the power and the intensity that I’ve always heard him sing with when I was growing up, something I am unable to capture with my voice. I thought it would be a nice contrast. My voice is a little smoother and I wanted him to use his raspiness. He has that smoothness too; that’s where I get it.
Q: Your dad just told me that you have always had stage presence.
A: I think so. I learned a lot of it from him. I think a lot of it is intuitive in my DNA. I used to do a lot of theater. I did a lot of singing in church, when I was younger. It came natural to me and then I got into print journalism and I lost some of that because I think print journalism is one those mediums that really encourages you to take the focus off the performance and yourself and you just get that byline. Then I went into more on-camera stuff and I had to tap more into the onstage presence that I’ve always had within me. It’s probably been over the past two years that I’ve really tapped back into that and really felt comfortable again being on camera and on stage.
Q: Was NYC always the career destination this Maplewood boy had in mind?
A: I think it was. I had a mentor many years ago in high school who told me anybody who wants to have impact or at some point be a leader or politician or whatever it is, should spend some time in New York. There are a lot of people who don’t spend time in New York and that’s OK, too. But for me, there is such an energy level there. I didn’t get to go to New York for the first time until I was in my 20s. When I got there I had an idea, ‘Wow. This is a place that I have to be.’ For me, a person who likes different challenges, there is just so much to do there. I’ve booked guests in the past two years and everybody has to come through New York, no matter where you are.
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Q: How often do you run into Minnesotans when you’re in New York?
A: I’ll tell you a little story. There was a guy, his name is Gordy Jones. CHECK I was in Walgreens in Times Square, and there was a guy with that traditional Harmon Killebrew Minnesota Twins cap, a fitted cap. And I thought, “I wonder where this guy got that cap?” I said, “ Hey, are you from Minnesota?” and he said, Yeah, Oakdale. We sat there and talked for half an hour. Turned out he had a book he has written on the Minnesota Twins and he sent me a copy of his book. We became friends. He is one of the bellhops at the Hilton Hotel. I just saw him this week. That’s what’s great about a Minnesotan: You can see a Minnesotan everywhere and you know you can stop and talk to that person. Same thing with the Green Bay Packer fans. Sometimes people look at you with, “Why are you talking to me [written on their faces],” but not Minnesotans.
Q: You book your interview subjects?
A: Yes. I do a lot of relationship building. For me, I believe your net worth is your network. I met a lot of people who worked on the business side of entertainment: lawyers, agents, promoters. People started to find out I worked for the Wall Street Journal. I was able to get a hold of LeBron James, Bob Johnson from the network I was in [because of music projects and] book high-profile guests. Now 80 percent of my guests call me. So I’m disappointed I wasn’t invited to do the Prince interview that a couple of my colleagues from NABJ kept secret. I wasn’t on the list. They were slick about it. Four years ago I would have called Prince ahead of time and been very, very aggressive about getting that interview. I don’t want to lose that intensity.
Q: How often do you get a note or a phone call thanking you for interviews?
A: I don’t get many. The best call you can get from a celebrity guest or from their handler is not that they were happy with the interview. You feel weird when somebody thanks you for the interview because you wonder, “Wow, was I hard enough on that person?” If they say, “We didn’t like the question on this or that, but it was a great interview and it was fair.” When I get those calls, those are the calls that make me feel good about what I do.
Q: Do you have to hold your nose to interview R. Kelly?
A: I made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to talk about his history. It was my decision because he wasn’t convicted. The other thing was I didn’t break the story. And there were so many other things I thought I could talk to R. Kelly about within the context of the music industry. R. Kelly was somebody who sold a lot of physical copies; musicians were making money hand over fist through the sale of CDs. He saw that transition to digital. He’s lost a lot of revenue through publishing. To me it was interesting to see what he had to say. He had a very aggressive response to the fact that he’s suffered in terms of publishing especially with music streaming. He has a great talent for songwriting. It’s going to be harder for him going forward but a lot of the young people don’t know him. He did the song with Lady Gaga, “Do What You Want with My Body,” and I think that helped him a little bit with the younger audience.
Q: What question would you have asked Prince if you had been among the chosen 10 from NABJ?
A: How he felt the day he found out that Michael Jackson had passed. I’ve been a devout fan since I was a little kid and met him for the first time at Dez Dickerson’s wedding many years ago. I’ve always loved Prince’s music and Michael Jackson’s music. They were put out in the press to be rivals. There were this reports they were going to do a project together but because of schedules and egos or whatever they never did. But I know since they were contemporaries there was some level of respect they had for each other. Also because Michael Jackson was raised in a Jehovah’s Witnesses family and as Prince is a Jehovah’s Witness and I hear very committed to his faith, I wonder how he felt. I would expect he was hit very hard, emotionally and spiritually.
Q: Were the NABJers who interviewed Prince too gentle on him?
A: I probably would have gone tough on him when he talked about Tidal Title. Prince hasn’t been announced as a co-owner in Tidal. They have 18 or so celebrity owners, including Jay Z. Prince put his album exclusively on Tidal, all of his material. And now he’s doing a new album with Jay Z. My first question is, “Are you now an owner of Tidal?” because if they sell that company some day that will be another windfall for Prince.
Q: You know he doesn’t let you take notes when he gives interviews.
A: I didn’t. I don’t think that’s the best way to go about it, as you know. He has his own way. He’s a very quirky person. How can you argue with him? He’s been very successful.
Q: Do you think Prince should make himself available to perform at the 2016 NABJ conference?
A: I think Prince should make himself available to all NABJs going forward. There were so many of us who wanted to see him perform. It was just powerful that Duchesne [Drew, former Strib exec now at Bush Foundation] and the team in Minneapolis were able to get what we got. We had an incredible show from Mint Condition and then all of these people who got to go to Paisley Park for the first time. We left, “Aw, man it would have been cool to see him play.” He did offer us an invitation to come back. The question is when? As a musician, when I got there and didn’t see anything set up, I had a hunch [he wasn’t performing].
Q: Why do you think Prince should have performed for NABJ, instead of letting most just tour Paisley Park?
A: I would have done the performance just because there were so many journalists in there who would have that fixated in their minds for generations and would write about it.
Q: Some people have joked that the night Prince invited NABJers to Chanhassen was the first time that many black people had ever been to Paisley Park at the same time.
A: [Laughter] Prince has opened a lot of doors for African-American musicians.
Q: Do you think there is anybody who call tell Prince: You were wrong when you did so-in-so. I have friends like that, does he?
A: I think Prince probably has someone in his church, probably some spiritual adviser, he listens to in ways he wouldn’t to a lot of us. That’s one of the problems with celebrities, however. So many lose a lot when they don’t have that independent person, who’s completely impartial who has their interest in mind to tell them: You know what, Prince? That’s stupid, the idea you’re coming up with there. I learned that from Joan Rivers. She was the person who taught me that no matter how big a person gets they should have advisers who know and trust them who are not afraid to tell them they are right or wrong.
Q: What is the biggest hurdle you’ve had to cross to get an interview?
A: [:Laughter] I had to go to Charlotte, North Carolina, to try to get Michael Jordan. I went to dinner with the president of the team and I met a lot of the critical people on the staff, so they could get a feel for me. They showed me a great time. I did get to meet Michael Jordan. At one point they asked me to be a moderator for a panel they were doing for a nonprofit in New York City, but they said they wanted it to be off the record. My bosses at the Wall Street Journal said Nah. There was my opportunity because I was on my way to landing my interview with Michael Jordan. I still hope I can get that one day but I went all the way to Charlotte for an interview that never happened.
Q: Beyoncé has got to be on your list?
A: I’ve interviewed her dad, which was for me the interview I always wanted to get. I feel that Matthew Knowles is largely responsible for her success. And he’s somebody who has always had that knack. There are people like him who get the criticism whether you talk about Jessica Simpson’s father, Joe, or Mr. Jackson, Michael’s father, and Matthew Knowles. These are complex people but you have think about the way their minds work and their talent for development, which is something that my father has, too. There’s an intensity that he exhibited when I was a kid and I see that same intensity in Matthew Knowles so I really want to know what was in the DNA that enabled him to pull that out of his daughter.
Q: How are we going to hook up your friend Khari Richburg and his charity with Dwyane Wade?
A: In the beginning when he told me he wanted to get Dwyane Wade, I told him he should probably think of a Minneapolis athlete first, which he’s not against. He’s really, really a crazy Dwyane Wade fan. We could maybe go through Gabrielle Union, who I interviewed. There are a lot of different ways. The fact that you did the interview with him and he carried himself so well and he showed he is so dedicated to his charity, Khari probably could get Dwyane Wade to show up. Dwyane Wade has a foundation and a connection to the Midwest because he attended Marquette University, so there is a possibility.
Q: I want to know if the Wall Street Journal reporter has set up 529 accounts for his nieces and nephews, one of my financial objectives for 2015? I don’t waste money on birthdays and Christmas. I let their parents do that stuff.
A: How shall I say this? Since I don’t have kids myself, they will be taken care of. I give them money and stuff. As far as I am concerned they are my legacy. I have four nieces and nephews and a godson who is not a blood relative. One of the things about having nieces and nephews who are young and talented is that you want to push them in a certain direction. They are all great students. The hardest part is to stand back and let them develop their own passions as opposed to projecting yours on them.
Q: How many interesting pairs of pants does Uncle have?
A: [Laugh]. I think two years ago I thought I was this walking zombie with starched shirts and so I got this idea I would start getting the plaid golf pants and I probably have 15 pair. They look in the middle of casual and formal. They’re fun. It’s cool. Some people like it, some don’t. I’ve been praised and I’ve been bullied over my love of golf pants.
Q: Do you actually play any golf?
A: I don’t play a lick of golf. I think if I played golf I would spend most of my time in the clubhouse.
Q: What instruments do you play?
A: I play drums and I play piano well enough to teach the talented musicians I work with the songs that I write. In my spirit I hear music. All the time I hear melodies. There’s a special talent that the musicians I play with have to have. They have to have the ability to play by ear, which is great because I grew up in the gospel church where most musicians play by ear. I always tell people, “If you want your kid to be someone who plays with different bands, especially pop music, great, let them learn Mozart and how to read music. But if they can intuitively hear music and figure out how to play it like Kirk Franklin, they will never be without a job. Since I won that John Lennon songwriting contest a few years ago, they sent me a lot of gear and different pianos. With the people that I work with, I am able to bring the music in my ears to life.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch Fox 9’s “Jason Show” and “Buzz.”