December 27, 2020

FTV: Ronnie Milsaps


     No need to tell me that I spelled his name wrong in the title.  When his first record came out on the small Princess label, Ronnie Milsaps was thrilled.  Then he ‘read’ a review in the Atlanta newspaper.  They said nice things about the record, but had dropped the last ‘s’ from his name.  Rather than telling the editors about the mistake, he took the next best option:  he went to the courthouse and officially changed his name from ‘Milsaps’ to ‘Milsap’.  I have always liked his songs and personality, but I can’t say I have ever bought one of his records.  As a Country Music Award collecting machine in the 1980s, Milsap was at the top of his game when he penned his 1990 biography Ronnie Milsap – Almost Like a Song (with Tom Carter, McGraw-Hill Publishing).  I happened upon the title when my wife and I bought a $2.50 bag of books from the library used book sale to have on hand in March of 2019 when it became apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic would be closing public gathering places.  It turned out to be a gem of a read after I was able to get the slight smell of mildew eradicated (hint:  insert a clothes dryer static sheet in the pages and seal the book in a plastic bag for a few days.  This cures the problem most of the time.  In this case, a longer period of treatment was needed as the lingering aura of mildew still stirred up my spring allergies earlier than usual).  It turns out that Ronnie is as good a story teller as he is a songwriter/musician.

     Young Ronnie Milsaps was raised by his paternal grandparents Phenia and Homer Frisby (who was Ronnie’s father’s stepfather).  His mother wanted nothing to do with him.  She felt  his blindness was God’s way of punishing her for some reason.  As Ronnie explains it, “Religious fears were as perverse as they were common at that time in rural western North Carolina.  Misguided fundamentalist teachings were the way of life and the only hope for eternal life among the Appalachians of the Smoky Mountains.”  After a year of her ‘hysterical rantings’ about her son, (“Take away God’s punishment,” she demanded, before adding, “Don’t you take that baby out of this house without a blanket!”), Ronnie was taken to his grandparent’s four room cabin located a half mile from the nearest road.  With no running water or utilities, young Ronnie grew up loved and cared for, but his mother’s rejection would follow him through his early life.  They were poor in material ways but Ronnie grew up in a loving family.  He was a curious child who made up for his lack of sight by taking mechanical things like clocks apart to “see what made them tick.”  Things the family did not want disassembled were placed on higher shelves.

     At age six, his grandfather Homer and a welfare caseworker took him on a two day journey to Raleigh, North Carolina to enroll him in the State School for the Blind.  It was a great adventure for the young Ronnie as it included a stay in a hotel and his first encounters with indoor plumbing.  The next day, they toured the school which was another new adventure.  When it was time for Homer to say goodbye, he explained that Ronnie would be staying at the school.  The boy was heartbroken and confused: “I still couldn’t believe he was saying it.  Hadn’t my own mother abandoned me?  Hadn’t I been born with virtually no sight (Ronnie could sense light with one eye)?  Didn’t God know I was just a little kid?”  His new situtation reminded him of the Bible story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery as a youth:  “I was sure that I was a little boy who had been taken far away and sold into servitude.”  It was a bitter pill to swallow and Governor Morehead (as the school was later renamed) would be his home for the next thirteen years.  By the time he graduated in 1962, he had learned to get around in the world.  One of the schools ‘tests’ involved dropping students off in downtown Raleigh with a cane and no instructions how to get back to the school.  Ronnie’s grades were good enough to gain a spot at North Carolina State, one of the most prestigious schools then as it is now.

     The story about his trips home for the Christmas holiday offers a glimpse as to how rough the road to his future could be.  Ronnie would be put on a bus for the two day ride home without a traveling companion.  Once they reached Asheville, North Carolina, he would spend the night alone in the bus terminal until the next bus departed for home.  A kindly bus driver might take him to a restroom or see that he got off at the right stop.  Occasionally he would be mugged for his lunch. A frightening trip for a sighted child, this became routine for the young Ronnie.  Back at home, the hill folk were skeptical that he was learning anything of value at the far away school.  He and his grandfather lugged the eighteen volume Braille Bible to the local store so he could demonstrate that he could indeed read.  Some claimed it was a parlor trick. “That they thought I had memorized the whole Bible tells it all,” Milsap notes.  

    While he credits many of the school staff who taught him the skills he would come to rely on, he also remembers that the school was big on discipline.  ‘Big’ to the point of ‘abusive’ in some cases.  At fourteen, he dared to speak up to a study hall monitor in defense of a friend who the adult had slapped.  In return, the monitor slapped Ronnie so hard that it damaged his one ‘good’ eye.  He had always held out hope that someday God or medical knowledge (or both) would be able to fix his eye.  The slapping episode caused a blood clot behind his eye resulting in him ‘seeing’ a wash of red with his eyes open or shut and also a great deal of pain.  The pain and the drugs he took for the discomfort began to disrupt his life even further.  He reluctantly agreed to having his ‘good’ eye surgically removed and replaced with an artificial one.

     Milsap credits the music department at the school for helping him develop his skills on a variety of instruments.  Though he learned to play the violin, cello, and clarinet, he favored the piano over his first instrument, the guitar.  At first, the music students were discouraged from (and punished for) playing that new fangled ‘devil’s music’ called ‘rock and roll’.  Milsap was banned from the music department by the vindictive department head for daring to play Buddy Holly songs (on his own time) the day Holly died (along with Ritchie Valens and JR ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson when their plane crashed in a snowy Iowa cornfield).  The next year, the school wanted his musical talents on the cello back in the orchestra, but Ronnie exercised a bit of his hill country stubbornness and he would return, “Only if I play the clarinet.”  At that point he didn’t know how to play the clarinet, but not surprisingly, Milsap learned the new instrument fast enough to earn the first chair.  Tough times made him tougher, but Ronnie also helped change some of the school’s restrictions.  By his junior year (and with encouragement from the school), he and his friends had formed a band called The Apparitions.  The first time he earned $15 for playing at a dance, Ronnie began thinking about becoming a professional musician.  The State of North Carolina had a different plan.  They supported his education at Governor Morehead and expected him to attend North Carolina State.  Milsap went against the grain when he decided to attend Young Harris College so he could stay closer to home.  

     At the Junior College, Ronnie studied pre-law with the intent of continuing on at Emory Law School.  He did well in school but he still failed his music appreciation class.  The class was held on Monday mornings.  Spending the weekend at clubs listening to or playing music caused him to sleep in on Mondays.  He had no problem passing the class work or tests, but his frequent absenteeism was interpreted as ‘indifference’.  Ronnie became friends with the son of a wealthy contractor who had a band called The Dimensions.  When asked to sit in with the band, he was a natural fit and joined up.  After graduating from Young Harris in 1964, Milsap began having second thoughts about law school.  He met his future wife Joyce about this time and she encouraged him to do what he wanted to do, not just follow the path the State of North Carolina picked for him.  He felt he owed the state for their support, but in the end, the decision was made.  Ronnie Milsap pursued music full time.

     Though somewhat insecure about his own talents, Ronnie decided to strike out on his own.  With The Dimensions, Milsap was performing mostly R&B music and pop.  At first they were a curiosity;  a group of white boys playing rhythm and blues for mostly black audiences.  Atlanta disc jockey Pat Hughes got them in front of white teens and eventually into integrated clubs.  It was Hughes who introduced Milsap to the ‘Crazy Cajun’ record producer from Houston named Huey Meaux with whom he would record his first record.  The single (Total Disaster backed by It Went to Your Head) sold a lot of records in the Atlanta area, but struggled for airplay elsewhere.  Milsap explained the luke warm sales:  “I think the disappointing sales had to do with the assassination of President Kennedy the same week my recored went on sale.  Neither song had to do with the shooting, but that was so heavily in the day’s news, I think a lot of folks thought the tunes were irreverent ditties about the assasination.”  There would be more years of touring before Milsap became a recording star.  Nine releases on Scepter Records and two on Chips Records would follow.  His fortunes began to rise when he was signed by major label Warner Brothers in 1972 (and later RCA in 1973).  A move to Nashville would eventually provide connections and studio work with Elvis and other established stars he had previously heard on the radio.

     His band leader in The Dimensions really liked James Brown, Ronnie not so much.  Just the same, Milsap began performing more of The Godfather of Soul’s tunes and gained a greater appreciation for his style.  When he and his bass player were invited to be part of a week-long package of shows opening for JB, he was elated.  The first rehearsal with the band turned into a smoking hot two hour jam session.  When they took the stage for the first show, the whole band was on stage, yet only Ronnie and his bass player could be heard.  Bewildered, he asked JB’s musical director what was happening.  He said, “Is this your first time playing with him?  Didn’t anybody tell you?  He will let you rehearse with the band, but he won’t let us play the actual show because he doesn’t want us helping anybody sound better than him.”  Meeting Ray Charles left a better impression but Ronnie worried when Ray said he was going to record his own version of a song Milsaps had recently released.  As he feared, Ray’s version out sold his.

     There were good and bad times to come.  Joyce became Milsap’s wife and acted as the band’s driver, booker, and roady.  Having played every club in Atlanta, they branched out by booking an extended engagement at Fort Bragg, NC.  Performing 47 shows a week, Ronnie found that no matter how much he loved to play, he wasn’t superhuman.  On his fifty fourth consecutive day of performing at the various clubs at Fort Bragg, he lost his voice.  No sore throat or hoarseness signaled the oncoming voice trouble:  he simply lost his voice completely in mid-song.  When the doctor examining him was told about the brutal schedule he had set for himself, the doctor exclaimed, “Even God takes Sundays off!”  No permanent damage was done but another lesson was learned.

     It was also at Fort Bragg that Milsap nearly got busted for driving while blind.  One late night, he convinced everybody that he could drive the deserted streets leading off base to their motel.  With the bass player sitting behind him giving directions, they set off down the road with Ronnie behind the wheel.  Near the main gate, they encountered a road block where the MPs were checking for drunk drivers.  This was not uncommon on military bases as I had a similar experience at KI Sawyer Air Force base after a band job at the NCO Club back in the early 1970s.  Without time to switch drivers, it was Milsap that the MP asked to step out of the car for questioning.  He was incensed when Milsap said he had left his license back at the hotel (a license he obviously did not possess).  The MP calmed down when Ronnie explained why he was driving without a license:  “I called him ‘sir,’ I said, ‘these guys have had a couple of drinks and we wouldn’t want anyone to drink and drive.  So I figured it would be best if I drove.  I don’t drink, and we’re musicians who are playing on this base, and we were just on our way home.’  The MP’s anger began to subside.  I had been nice, apologetic, and respectful.  And it worked.  He told me to go on  home, and never to let him see me driving that way again.  For him, the routine incident was over.  For me, the crisis was heightening.  I had to open the door by feel, slide onto the driver’s seat, start the engine, and pull away in front of the suspicious stares of I don’t know how many MPs.  I had pulled it off, and I never saw that MP again.  He never knew I never had [seen him].”

     Ronnie Milsap surprises people and he understands why.  Most people don’t get to spend much time with a blind person, so they just don’t know what to think.  Many are surprised that he is tall (6’2”), has a wife and son, and loves to take things apart.  He is a ham radio operator and collects both old radios and records.  When he gets up to dance on stage, some worry that he will tumble off the edge, but as a showman, Milsap knows exactly where his marks are.  If he could find his way back to school from downtown Raleigh, one suspects that he would not have trouble finding his way back to a piano on stage.  Many were also surprised that his records had so much crossover appeal.  Blessed with a voice that can sing a range of styles, it wasn’t a surprise when he became one of the first country artists to receive extended airplay on MTV.

     Knowing more of his R&B roots, it is time for me to re-examine Ronnie Milsap’s music.  The C&W star with the sparkly jackets and dark shades makes no apologies for living a rags to riches life that allows him to own a mansion in Nashville.  Up to the publication of this book, he had heard occasionally from his birth mother.  She would periodically contact him to ask for money (or send a boyfriend to his press conferences to ask him publically why he treats his mother so poorly), requests he has declined to honor.  His grandmother Phenia died before he became a big success.  Homer died in August of 1989 as his book was being written.  To him, they were his mother and father.  Milsap would have given them anything they asked for.  As of 2020, Milsap is 77 years old and still active in the music industry.  Sadly, their son Todd of natural causes in 2019 at age 49.  He had worked with his father in production and on videos.

Top Piece Video:   Here is Ronnie performing in 2002 –