Summer Lovin’: Ronnie Milsap Looks Back on New Album
At age 71, Ronnie Milsap has been in the music business for half a century, but he’s not slowing down. On March 18, he’ll release Summer Number 17, a new album for which recorded several songs that he enjoyed as a young man, including “Tears on My Pillow” and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.” An Opry member since 1976, Milsap has sold more than 35 million albums over the course of his career, and his genre-blending sound won him countless fans as well as numerous chart-topping singles and awards.
We caught up with Ronnie a few weeks ago and he told us all about his new album, his lengthy and accomplished career, and the items still on his bucket list. Listen to his take on Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” at the bottom of this interview and be sure to check Engine 145 later for a Ronnie Milsap-themed giveaway.
How did this new record come about?
It started with my manager going to RCA in New York to check on my catalog to see if they still wanted to administer it. They said, “What is Ronnie doing now?” My manager said, “He’s got a new album.” They said, “We don’t know what it is, but we want it.”
We told them the list of songs we had, and I had stumbled across a new song, “Summer #17,” written by a 21-year old here in town called Sam Hunter. I heard it and thought I’d get in the studio and see how it worked for me. So I sang it, did backgrounds on it, played it for Sam and he said, “I think that’s your next hit,” and I said, “I hope you’re right.”
After I got “Summer #17,” I decided I wanted to do songs that were my favorite when I was a teenager. I put the song list together, sang all my favorites, and I’d like to be crazy enough to think that’s going to work.
So you listened to a lot of different styles growing up.
Oh yeah, but there was a lot of country in there. Coming to Nashville to sing country was not a stretch for me at all. I loved a lot of country singers. When I was living in Memphis, I heard Mel Street on the radio playing “Borrowed Angel,” and within a year’s time, I was playing with him on a bill with George Jones and Tammy Wynette. It’s amazing how things can change.
How has your blindness affected you as an artist?
I’ve been so lucky in that I went to the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh when I was young. They taught me Braille at six, violin at seven, piano at eight.
Nowadays it isn’t hard for me to work up a song. I sit here at the computer and I type up the lyrics; then I hit “Ctrl-T,” which translates it into Braille, and then I print it on my Braille embosser. Put those in a notebook and you’re ready to go.
A lot of times I’ll sit at home at the piano and work up songs; if I like the way a song is going, I make sure to put it in the next session.
How did you end up in Nashville?
I graduated from high school and they said, “You did so well, we can pay for you to go to college if you want to go.”
I said, “I want to become a professional musician.” They said, “We don’t want you to do that. Why don’t you become a teacher or lawyer?” I didn’t want to do that, so I left North Carolina and went to Atlanta. I met Ray Charles in his dressing room, where I was playing the piano and said “Ray, you are truly the high priest. I love your records. I’ve got a dilemma, and maybe you can tell me your opinion. People want me to become something other than a professional musician.” He said, “Well, Ronald, it’s become apparent to me that music is where your heart is, and you’ve always got to follow your heart.”
So I got an early contract in New York with Florence Greenberg and Scepter Records in 1965. They had Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles, folks like that. I cut a record and my first Billboard entry was in the fall of that year with “Never Had it So Good,” written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Ray Charles heard that record and told me he liked it, especially the B-side, which was “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” He said, “I like that song so much, I’m going to record it myself.”
So much for me maybe getting a second single out of that record.
My wife Joyce and I were at the Continental Hyatt House in L.A. when my wife Joyce met Charley Pride in the elevator. I was waiting in my room for breakfast when the phone rang. I pick it up and there’s a voice singing, “Is anybody goin’ to San Antone?” I said, “I don’t know who you are, but you do a great impression of Charley Pride.” He laughed and said, “Ronnie, I am Charley Pride, and I’m coming to your show tonight at the Whiskey A Go Go.”
He heard me sing and told me that I needed to move to Nashville. I told him I wouldn’t have a job if I moved, and he said to look up his manager, Jack Johnson, to help me out. So all of a sudden I had this job presented to me. There was a showroom on the roof of Roger Miller’s King of the Road Hotel, and I got a job playing there five nights a week.
Then I started focusing on working on a demo that I could take to different labels. In 1973, Jack took a demo over to the head of RCA and Jerry Bradley–Owen Bradley’s son–said, “We know Ronnie Milsap, he’s an R&B and rock and roll singer; he’s not a country singer.”
Jack played them the tape, and Jerry said, “You know what? That son of a bitch can sing country. Let’s give him a year and see what he can do.” And how many years ago was that?
Signing with RCA seemed so right. I recorded the right songs, I had the studio knowhow, and I couldn’t have gotten any better than Jerry Bradley. The label had an artist relations person back then, and he said, “If you do what we tell you at RCA, you’ll have a 20-year career.” And he was right.
After you started getting hits, did you maintain your friendships with Ray and Charley?
Once I started getting some hits, Ray and I did some shows together. We would sit back to back at pianos and sing these songs together. On one big night we played for President Reagan. Ray was just a great singer and I loved getting to work with him.
All those years of making country records. I’ve done it for so long I don’t think people realize what a long career I’ve had. We’re all going to have a shot at doing what we do, we’re all going to live and die and I’m just thankful that I’ve had the chance to do all the things I’ve done. Blindness never really ruined anything for me. I was schooled and I knew what to do. I knew how to read Braille, I know how to use a computer – it’s all been just fine.
How would you describe your sound?
When Joe Galante was at RCA, he said, “What you need to understand is that you are a multiformat artist.” A lot of people don’t like that. I think they think “crossover” is a bad word. He said “Being a multiformat artist is going to boost your sales because you have all these different people listening who are going to buy your records.” And they did.
Do you feel like that making multiformat/crossover music is delaying your Hall of Fame induction?
I don’t know, but I will say that I definitely want to be in the Hall of Fame. I’ve been doing this a long time and I deserve to be there. If I’m not there this year, I guess I’ll cry. I mentioned that to Brenda Lee and she said “Crying is always good.”
I want to be there, but I can’t make that happen. It’s not like there’s a political move you can do. I asked my producer friend how I could do this and he said “You just live your life the way you’ve been doing and it’ll happen.”
A lot of people think I’m already in the Hall, but I’m not. I hope we can change that. That would certainly be the payoff after being in country music all these years.
Is making records and touring still exciting for you, or have you been doing it so long that it’s old hat?
It’s very exciting! I guess they’re probably considered more classic country now, but I love all of those records I made. In some ways, they’re like my children. I love making records, I love calling people up to talk about the records and figuring out how we’re going to sell more.
When I lived in Memphis, I got to play on sessions with Elvis, Dusty Springfield, and a lot of different artists. I got to see how a studio really worked, and I watched what everyone did. Back then it was all analog, with tape. I always loved the smell of tape. It smelled like success. Now I have my own studio on Music Row and I learned that digital is where it’s at. The digital world is so convenient that I don’t think I’d go back to recording on tape again.
How long did it take to record the new album?
Not long. Maybe three weeks. We got the list of songs, went into the studio to do the tracking, went over to my friend’s house and listened to what we had and redid the parts I wanted to sing again. I brought it to a friend of mine who’s a mixing engineer and he put it all together. He just mixed a new Ray Price record, too. We mastered it here in Nashville, it into RCA and they were ready to go. March 18 is the date that it’s going to be available on iTunes, Amazon, or wherever people buy their music nowadays.
How did you end up singing with Mandy Barnett on “Make Up”?
I was looking for a duet partner, and my producer said, “The two best voices in Nashville are Mandy Barnett and Ronnie Milsap – you should sing together.” So I called and asked her if she’d do it, and she came into the studio and sang. It turned out really good; I told her, “We’re like the new Conway and Loretta!” She’s a tremendous singer.
What’s the hardest part of what you do?
I think trying to interface with the record company to make sure we’re doing everything we can to be successful. If it means we have to go on QVC, we go on QVC. It all comes down to having a great team of people working with you. The whole thing of trying to stay in tune so the record company thinks they’re getting everything they ought to have and whatever that translates to on the radio, I love that. I love to chase that. I’m a radio nut; I stay up all night listening to the radio.
What are you listening to now?
I listen to “Coast to Coast AM” with George Noory. That used to be Art Bell’s show. I listen to that every night. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve always listened to WSM here in Nashville for as long as I can remember. Growing up as a child, I discovered that if I added more wire to my radio antenna, I could pick up WSM in the daytime. Now you don’t have to worry about that; put it on your iPhone. It’s pretty amazing.
What’s next for you?
We’re going out on the 40/40 Vision Tour. I think a lot of folks think that artists have it so easy, that we don’t have to do much beside show up, but that’s not really true. There’s a lot of hard work.
Are there any projects you still want to do?
Oh yeah. I’m open to trying any collaboration. I had a collaboration years back with Patti LaBelle that was just exceptional. I wanted to mimic that with Mandy Barnett. I’ve always wanted to play with Elton John at the Bridgestone Arena here in Nashville. I’ve always wanted to record with Elton. I know the song I would sing, “Philadelphia Freedom.” I’d love to do that and know it was a video and that folks could actually see it.
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s not enough to focus on audio. This is the world of images that we’re living in now.
When all of this is done, how do you want to be remembered?
As an artist who had his heart and soul in what he was doing. And if you could say one thing about Ronnie Milsap, it would be that he was believable. When he sang, you believed every word of it. That’s important to me.
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