Reflections: Ronnie Milsap

Jeff Tamarkin on March 27, 2019
Reflections: Ronnie Milsap

The country great looks to nab the NASCAR crowd by revisiting a baker’s dozen of his biggest hits with the help of some famous friends.

From 1974 to 1989, Ronnie Milsap scored an astounding 35 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country Singles chart—a bunch of others made it into the Top 10. The singer and multi-instrumentalist also placed some 18 LPs into the Top 10 of the trade publication’s Top Country Albums chart, four of which vaulted as high as possible.

Before all of that, though, he had to convince skeptics that a kid from North Carolina who’d been blind since birth even had a shot in the music business. “All of my school counselors were telling me: ‘Don’t do that. You need to go to college and study to be a teacher or a lawyer, where you’ll have a good career,’” Milsap says today. “I said, ‘But I love music more than any of that.’”

He gave it a try, and although executives at the record labels recognized his talent, they didn’t know what to do with him. Signed in 1965 to Scepter Records, the New York home of Dionne Warwick and The Shirelles, Milsap was initially groomed to sing R&B music. His first single for the label, “Never Had It So Good,” authored by aspiring songwriters Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, actually scraped into the R&B Top 20 and, for several years, Milsap plugged away, trying his hand at rock-and-roll and anything else that might bring him a modicum of success.

Finally, in the early-‘70s, he made up his mind to attempt to break into the country end of the business—as he’d wanted to do all along. He moved to Nashville, found a manager and signed to RCA Records. Milsap remembers the joy of hearing his own first country sides. “I had my tape recorder set up, put my tape on and started to listen to that stuff, and it just hit me: I’m finally doing what I’m supposed to do,” he says. “I started crying like a baby. That’s all right, because it’s all right to cry when something that big is happening in your life.”

Jerry Bradley, the head of the label’s Nashville division, also heard those tunes, and he knew they had something. Milsap recalls, “Bradley said, ‘I know Ronnie Milsap. He’s an R&B singer, he’s a rock-and-roll singer, but he’s not a country singer.’ So we played him my tape and he said, ‘Well, that son of a bitch can sing country.’ We put a couple records out and they started to do pretty well, and things just kept building every single year.” Milsap landed his first chart-topper, “Pure Love,” in the spring of ‘74 and was virtually unstoppable for the next couple of decades.

It was never an easy road, but Milsap received plenty of encouragement along the way. There was Elvis Presley, for example, who hired Milsap to play piano on his 1970 hit “Kentucky Rain.” They became friends and, one night, the King invited the up-and-comer to his private New Year’s Eve party, where Milsap provided the live music. Another inspiration—Milsap’s biggest, he says—was Ray Charles, who enjoyed one of Milsap’s early B-sides, “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” so much that he cut it himself and had a Top-40 pop hit with it the following year. “I didn’t mind,” says Milsap. “After all, how many times had I covered a Ray Charles record when I played?”

Milsap remained one of RCA’s flagship artists until shifts in the music industry, as well as the tastes of the record-buying public, changed. He left the label in 1993 but—with a string of Country Music Awards and Grammys to show for his efforts—continued to record and perform. In 2014, having reached his 70s, he announced that he was retiring from touring.

But Milsap still hasn’t lost his fire, and January saw the release of a collection he simply calls The Duets, boasting collaborations on 13 of his biggest hits with fellow country legends Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and George Strait, as well as younger hitmakers like Jason Aldean and Kacey Musgraves. The late Leon Russell shares vocals on 1980’s “Misery Loves Company.” One of the more surprising duets features the voice and guitar of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, on a track called “Southern Boys and Detroit Wheels.”

“It ought to be played at every NASCAR show,” Milsap says. He explains that his manager contacted the bearded rocker, who was enthusiastic to be a part of the project. Once Gibbons heard the track they had in mind, “he got right on it, sang it and sent it back to us,” Milsap says. “I said, ‘Hell, that is great but can you play some guitar on there too?’ He said yes and now it’s the first song on the album. It’s a really great cut.”

Parton sang on Milsap’s 1980 No. 1 “Smoky Mountain Rain,” but after he heard it, he requested that she make a change. “I wanted her to play the girl that I’m looking for in the Smoky Mountain rain,” Milsap says. “So she basically rewrote the song, and she can do that ‘cause she’s a great songwriter. The way it is right now, I think it’s outstanding.”

One of Milsap’s signature tunes, “Lost in the Fifties,” first released in 1985, is reworked with the help of Little Big Town. Somehow, Milsap’s original managed to take the Best Male Country Vocal Performance Grammy in both 1986 and 1987. He’s still not quite sure how that happened but he’s not complaining. “If you win a Grammy, that is a big deal,” he says. “I’ve won seven but I’m looking to win some more. I want to win as many as Aretha Franklin. That’ll take a lot, won’t it?”

Mostly, though, he just wants to keep going as long as he can. “I want to cut some more songs,” he says. “I want to go visit some songwriters who are real masters of the art, and find some songs to sing that I haven’t sung. I’d still love to do a lot of things.”

This article originally appears in the March 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.