Only George Strait and Conway Twitty have more No. 1 country songs than the smooth-singing Ronnie Milsap, who turned 76 on Wednesday — the day he opened his 76 for 76 Tour with a performance at the venerable Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
On Friday, Jan. 18, he releases an album, “The Duets,” which has songs with Willie Nelson, George Strait, Dolly Parton and the late Leon Russell and the last studio recording by Troy Gentry of the duo Montgomery Gentry.
At one point in the early 1980s, Milsap had 11-straight No. 1 songs. He became so popular that his music transcended the genre into contemporary pop. He’s sold more than 35 million albums.
Loquacious and amiable, Milsap talked with Tahoe Onstage last summer before a Northern Nevada concert at the Carson Valley Inn about his new record, how Ray Charles encouraged him to pursue music and his well-known collaboration with Elvis Presley.
Tahoe Onstage: Have you been taking measures to preserve your voice?
Ronnie Milsap: That always crosses your mind, especially when you go into record or do a big show like the one in Carson Valley. But I’m sitting here now drinking coffee and they say coffee is bad for you but it sure makes you feel a little better. But before I go onstage, I’ll probably have a little Robitussin to clear the pipes. The more you use your pipes, the more active you are, the better you will be. I try to stay active all the time. I’m recording next week then I am getting on a Lear jet to get out to Nevada next Thursday.
Q: Do you live in Nashville and can you tell me about the recording session you mentioned?
A: Yeah, I’m in Nashville, right around the corner from the governor’s mansion. I am doing a duets project with some of my favorite people. I recorded a song with Leon Russell before he passed. A song with Willie Nelson, Little Big Town, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan. Next week, we’ve got Steven Curtis Chapman and George Strait. So we’re coming to the end of this album. We’re down to the point where we can just mix and master and decide which ones are going to make the album.
Q: You’ve had 40 songs go all the way to No. 1. Can you anticipate when one of your songs will become a hit?
A: Quite a bit. This was back in the days when RCA Records was strong. They had a very good promotion department and a great marketing department and I’d usually get the head of the label to come over and I’d play what I got and he would say let me get a copy of these and I’ll run them by my folks, and he’d come back over next week and he say something like, “We like this, ‘There’s No Getting Over Me,’ so we’re going to come with that as a single. Or in the case of 1983 when he took over the label, “I’m coming with ‘Stranger in My House.’ ” It was the biggest international record for me, No. 1 in Australia for 13 weeks in a row. I worked well with the record company because they were good. They knew what they were doing and they got the job done worldwide.
Q: With so many songs, it must difficult to decide which ones to play at a concert.
A: A lot of times when you are wondering what they want to hear, ask ‘em. They’ll tell you. The audience is a big part of what you do. Their response spurs a performer to do better than he’d ever thought he was going to. The audience does that for you. They make you better on that night than you thought you were going to be.
Q: That’s a lot of songs for your band to learn.
A: They knows every song I’ve recorded, so they’re ready. This band that travels with me is the secret weapon. It’s as good as it gets and it has good technical support crew as well. I look forward to this venue (TJ’s Corral) in the Carson Valley because it was designed for music.
Q: You are known as a country artist who broke through to pop, but isn’t it true that you started in R&B?
A: I sure did. I was classically trained at a school for the blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I got out of school, I wanted to become a professional musician and a counselor said, “No you can’t do that. We want to do something better than that.”
So I went to a Ray Charles concert and his pilot let me back into the dressing room and I was sitting in there playing Ray’s piano when he walked in. I said, “Mr. Ray Charles, you are truly the high priest and I want to become a professional musician like you are.” He said, “Play me something.” So I played him a couple of songs and he said, “I can tell you love it, don’t you?” I said, “Yes I do.” He said, “Son, what you ought to do is get involved get in the middle of it and soak it up like a sponge every day and you ought to become a professional musician.” So I want back to Raleigh and said, “Ray Charles said it was OK for me to become a professional musician.” So I worked my way to Nashville and before long I was playing big, corporate shows with my hero Ray Charles.
Q: Why R&B?
A: I spun into R&B because I loved that kind of music. I loved Motown. I used to go to this place in Atlanta called The Royal Peacock. I got to go see Jackie Wilson and I got to go backstage and shake his hand. I got to see Stevie Wonder when he was 13. So all of a sudden I got picked up by a record company out of New York called Scepter Records, which was run by Florence Greenberg, and she said, “I want you to be an R&B singer.” So I recorded my first record, it was a Top 5 on the soul charts, called “Never Had It So Good,” a song written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. They were great songwriters who went on to work with Motown and wrote “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and a lot of other big songs. Ray Charles said, “I love your record, Ronald. What I really love is that B side, “Let’s Get Stoned.” … So Ray covered it, but I don’t mind. If Ray Charles wants to cover a record of mine, that’s as cool as can be. I covered many of his, I’m sure.
Q: How did you get into the country music realm?
A: I worked my way to Nashville and I had a job at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Hotel. Jack Johnson said, “I want to manage you.” He was the manager of Charlie Pride. He said, “I want to make you a star.” So I signed a contract with him and he got me a deal with RCA. The first record does pretty good, the second one real good and then we get a No. 1. From then on, it seemed like everything I did was No. 1.
Q: What was the key to your success?
A: We spent time on the records and we took care to pick the great songs. I had a song called “Almost Like A Song” in 1977, my first million-seller single. It crossed over into the adult contemporary and into the pop field. And so all of a sudden, they said I wasn’t country any more. Of course, I could continue to sing country music. Then Joe Galante the head of RCA said, “What you are is a multi-format artist. You just keep making records and we’ll get them on the radio and we’ll get them sold,” and they did. So here I am 40 years later still doing it. And still having fun doing it.
Q: I understand that you were inspired musically as a youngster by rock and roll and specifically Elvis Presley. It must have been a thrill to later work with him.
A: Elvis’s producer decided he wanted to cut a couple of albums down there in Memphis with Elvis. So they call me in that day to record a song called “Kentucky Rain,” which was recorded by Eddie Rabbitt. So all of a sudden it’s New Year’s Eve and Elvis comes to the club where I work and he brought all of his friends and entourage and he said, “I appreciate your playing on the record.” It was great to sit and talk with Elvis. He was the voice of my generation. It was overwhelming to me.
Q: Do you have a favorite artist?
A: I loved Glen Campbell. I went to the U.K. to open for him and I didn’t have any hits out yet but I had a band and he wanted me to play about 50 minutes to open the show for him and I got to know Glen Campbell pretty well. I liked him a lot. He was a tremendous singer and I loved his TV show, “The Good Time Hour.” I loved what he did at Capitol Records, the big round building out there. They had Studio A and Studio B and I actually cut a record out there at Capitol, “Just For a Thrill.” It was up for a Grammy in 2004. Everybody was shocked that I’d do an album like that. But I love a lot of music. A lot of things, whether it’s rock and roll or country or Beethoven. He wrote the Moonlight Sonata after he was deaf. To me, that’s a pretty big miracle. It is just as stunning today as it was when he wrote it.
Milsap elaborates: I learned Braille when I was 6 years old in 1949. Listening to a book is great but that’s not the same as Braille literacy. It’s part of my life every day. I don’t feel that I’m missing too much. I’ve got this device that I can get on the Internet and check on certain things. So life gets better and better and being totally blind is not necessarily anything that would hold me back. I can handle it. But I was trained for it.
Tahoe Onstage: This interview went longer than expected. Thank you for being so generous with your time.
Milsap: It way my pleasure. Have a good rest of the day, my friend. (Singing) Bye, bye. Bye, bye. Bye bye.