By Ken Sharp
Robbinsville, North Carolina native Ronnie Milsap has music coursing through his DNA. The renowned country music vocalist, pianist and songwriter had enjoyed a career fruitful in robust creativity and commercial success, tallying an astonishing 40 number one hits. Still going strong at age 75, Ronnie’s new album, The Duets, showcases the legendary artist paired with a musical who’s who of star-studded collaborators including Willie Nelson, ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons, Dolly Parton, Leon Russell (his last recorded track before his passing), George Strait, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan, Kacey Musgraves and more.
Goldmine: Where did the idea of doing a duets album come from?
Ronnie Milsap: My producer and I have been talking about this for a while. I ran the run at RCA. I was there for 20 years and recorded 40 number one records for them. They put it all into a 21-CD set. Back in those days at RCA they had an artist relations department and they said, “If you’ll do what we ask you to do you’ll be here for 20 years,” and I did it and I was there for 20 years. Then I thought, what would I like to do now? And the idea came to do a duets record with some of the artists of today on some of my bigger and more recognizable songs and it came together. I tried it first with Luke Bryan on “Stranger in My House” and when that worked out real well, I thought, who else do we gotta get?
GM: There are some amazing duets on the record. Share your memories of a few of these duets starting with Leon Russell for “Misery Loves Company.”
RM: Oh, I love that guy and I finally got to sing with him and then sadly he passed right after that. I’ve been a fan of Leon Russell’s forever. I kept talking about a song that he had written, “Slipping into Christmas.” He said, “Well, are you gonna cut it?” And I said, “Well, I’m thinking about it.” “Well, do it! Make me some money.” (laughs) Leon liked this song called “Misery Loves Company.” I cut that record for RCA back when I had my own studio down on Music Row called Brown Star. It was a great studio. By then I’d probably gone from analog to digital. That was a painful move ‘cause I loved the way analog sounded and I got used to making records that way and splicing tape. But I got acquainted with what digital could do and learned to like it just as well. Getting back to “Misery Loves Company,” I was in the studio together facing each other. He was playing the piano and I was playing the piano. Great record.
GM: You also cut a duet with Willie Nelson on “A Woman’s Love.”
RM: Well, we stumbled onto a great song. Mike Reidwrote that song and I’ve had 13 number one records with Mike Reid. The song was so good and we kept thinking about who would do it and Willie Nelson’s engineer down at his studio in Austin wanted to try it. So we sent the files down there and Willie did it and did it really great. If you’re gonna sing with Willie Nelson, he’s a legend for sure! They said the smoke was so thick down there in the studio it was like walkin’ in a fog. (laughs)
GM: The song “Southern Boys and Detroit Wheels” proved to be a perfect fit for Billy F. Gibbons.
RM: You know, I’ve had this song for about 10 years. I got it from my C.P.A. He said, “A guy just came in here and said to give you this cassette.” So I got it, listened to it and I said, “Man, that is great.” I tried cutting it as a single but then my manager, Burt Stein heard that Billy Gibbons might be interested. So we sent a copy of what we’d done down there to him and he said, “I’ll do that.” And he did a great job.
GM: Speaking of duets, you snag harmony vocals on Elvis’ smash 1969 hit, “Don’t Cry Daddy.”
RM: I did that as an overdub; Elvis wasn’t in the studio for that session. It was a wonderful experience singing along to Elvis. He loved it and was very supportive.
GM: You also played keyboards on Elvis’ 1970 smash hit, “Kentucky Rain,” what are your memories of those sessions?
RM: I got to sing and play on those records and got to be around Elvis for an evening. That session with Elvis for “Kentucky Rain” came about because there was no one else there to play piano. It came about because there was nobody else there at American Studios that night to do it. Chips Moman who was running that studio and producing the Elvis sessions said, “Ronnie Milsap’s here in the building, bring him in.” He introduced me to Elvis. “Elvis, this is Ronnie Milsap.” And that was about it. I played on that record and sang on that record, too. I played grand piano on “Kentucky Rain” while Elvis was cutting his vocal live. It was just incredible. To know that Elvis had decided to come back to Memphis and record. His producer Felton Jarvis was excited about it and he was partnering with Chips Moman who ran American Studios down in Memphis. I’d cut in that studio a lot. I lived in Memphis for four years. I tried to make records down there but I could never get anything that I was happy about.
GM: You hung out with Elvis at a New Year’s Eve party?
RM: Yes, that’s right. I got to play a New Year’s Eve party when ’70 turned ‘71. That was at TJ’s in Memphis, down in midtown in Memphis. He leased the whole club. I’d been playing there sixnights a week ‘til the crack of dawn. Elvis wanted to pick a place where the band was already in place and they could do the job. So he wanted to come hang out down at TJ’s. I said, “Elvis, I know you’re probably gonna say no but I know every song you’ve ever recorded. Any possibility you might come up and sing one tonight? Tell me if you wanna sing ‘Wear My Ring Around Your Neck’ or ‘One Night With You.’ I know them all.” He said, “Ronnie, I would prefer to just hang out here with my friends.” I said, “Okay, I understand that but I had to ask you.” We spoke about the records I played and sang on and he loved all of that. He appreciated that I was on the records with him. But he had such history working in the studio it was just fun to be around him. I found out that he had people around him all of the time. If he was getting to walk somewhere there was a person in front and person in back of him and a person on each side of him. I said, “Why is all of that?” And they said, “Well, Elvis usually gets hit up in the bathroom. He’ll go in the bathroom and somebody will come up and say, ‘My mama needs hip surgery and I don’t know what we’re gonna do’ and Elvis would just whip out his check book and write ‘em a check for whatever that would cost.”
Elvis was great at the party. The times that I was around him he was a gentleman. Everything you think Elvis would be that’s exactly what he was.
Here’s something incredible. When Elvis passed in 1977 I heard that on his turntable was a copy of my album called It Was Almost Like A Song by Ronnie Milsap. That was on his turntable so he knew what I was doing.
GM: Where were you when you found out you had your first No. 1 record with “Pure Love”?
RM: Now, I hit the Billboard charts in 1965. I was an R&B artist. I went to New York and recorded a song called “Never Had It So Good” written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Put that baby out and it became a Top 5 soul record. As for my first No. 1 record, I was here at home and the head of promotion for my label called me and said, “Milsap, ‘Pure Love’ is going No. 1 in Billboard next week.” I said, “Good lord, how ‘bout that, that’s a big deal.” And he said, “Yes, it is.” I cut that song in Studio A at RCA here in Nashville. I cut it on January 8, 1974, Elvis’s birthday. Maybe that was my good luck charm. I cut two No. 1 records that day, “Pure Love” and a Kris Kristofferson song called “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends.” We were being instructed by the head of RCA at that time, Jerry Bradley... and he said, “Cut everything at Studio A, that’s the best studio in the house.” I said, “Well, what about Studio B?” And he said, “That’s Chet’s studio (Chet Atkins).” I want you to cut in Studio A ‘cause apparently his dad and he had something going with the ownership of Studio A. I found the engineer that I liked and used him. I used to talk to Chet Atkins a lot about microphones and who sang on what and why Jim Reeves always got such a real, up-close sound and he said, “Well, the engineer kept telling him to back off the mic, too much proximity effect.” And finally one day Jim had come into the studio and that engineer had passed away and nobody could make Jim back away from the mic anymore.
GM: What advice did your hero Ray Charles give you?
RM: Oh, he was great. I was going to the blind school in Raleigh, North Carolina and I was a good student. I was asked, “What are you gonna do when you grow up?” and I said, “I’m gonna be a professional musician.” And they said, “No, no, no, no! You gotta do something a lot better than that.” So I flew down to Atlanta to a Ray Charles concert and his pilot took me back to Ray’s dressing room. I was sitting there talking to Ray about how I wanted to be a professional musician. He said, “Well, play me something!” So I played him some songs and he said, “You love it, don’t ya?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “Every day you want it, don’t ya?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “You need to get in the middle of it, Ronald, and soak it up every day like a sponge and if you feel it in your heart that’s what you wanna do then good luck to you, you oughta go do it because you may not get this chance again ever in your lifetime and you know what you’re good at doing!” The school for the blind in Raleigh had a great music department. They taught me braille at six, violin at seven and piano at eight. I studied classical piano for all those years. I knew that music was where I was gonna go. I went to college for a couple of years thinkin’ I don’t know what I’m gonna do. The folks who were paying for my college education wanted me to do something big. “Why don’t you become a teacher or why don’t you become a lawyer?” (laughs) I didn’t think too much of that. Then I had a teacher at a junior college in Georgia who taught political science. He was so good, I looked forward to his class every day. But then I started playing with bands over the weekend and I discovered that the music is what I’m here for. You just know it and when you know it, go chase it!