Ronnie Milsap has quite unambiguously fallen under nostalgia's spell. The title of his new album, Summer #17, is an allusion to the halcyon days of youth. The cover art is a close-up of a vintage radio speaker. And besides a pair of misty-eyed, retro-style originals — the title cut and a re-recording of his country and pop hit "Lost in the Fifties Tonight" — the track list is populated with covers of familiar oldies, primarily doo-wop singles of the late '50s and soul of the '60s.
By revisiting some of the tunes that caught his ear as a student at North Carolina State School for the Blind — where he was diligent about his classical studies on piano, cello and clarinet, and furtive about working up such forbidden fare as the hillbilly, blues or gospel numbers he intercepted over the radio waves — Milsap has not only proven himself to be a septuagenarian still in strikingly supple voice, he's also reminded the world that he was never strictly a country artist.
One of the songs Milsap covers on Summer is Ray Charles' uptown R&B rendition of "Georgia on My Mind." See, a few years after Charles released his iconic track, he had a backstage encounter with a young Milsap, who was torn between going to law school and pursuing a music career — he'd been warned by teachers and advisors that he'd "wind up on the street" and "be an embarrassment to the state of North Carolina" if he chose the latter.
"And Ray said, 'Son, it sounds like your heart really is in music,' " Milsap recalls over the phone. " 'And if that's where your heart is, that's what you oughtta do.' And I thought, 'Well, there you go. That's Ray Charles, told me that.' "
Another song on the new record is "Tears on My Pillow," a 1958 hit for Little Anthony and the Imperials, with whom Milsap eventually played a package show during his brief stint on the predominately African-American Chitlin' Circuit, his mobility aided by his savvy, up-for-gear-schlepping sighted wife Joyce.
"That's when I was doing my rhythm-and-blues gig," says Milsap. "I thought I was going to be an R&B singer. ... I had this record out [on the R&B charts] called 'Never Had It So Good,' a song written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson."
R&B remained Milsap's main gig after Chips Moman lured him to Memphis with the promise of regular work at a hot nightclub. Moman used Milsap on sessions at his American Sound Studio — including some for Elvis Presley — and Moman's frequent partner in songwriting, Dan Penn, wound up producing Milsap's self-titled debut album for Warner Bros., though it failed to gain a foothold on the pop charts. It was established country star Charley Pride who suggested Milsap relocate to Nashville and focus on the countrified side of his sensibilities, and Pride's manager Jack Johnson, who paid for Milsap to cut demos, then shopped them around while Milsap and band entertained five nights a week in the bustling rooftop showroom of the King of the Road Hotel.
Back then, as now, a performer most closely associated with R&B was no easy sell to the country establishment. According to Milsap, RCA Nashville head Jerry Bradley dismissed Johnson's pitch with a curmudgeonly response along the lines of "I know Milsap. He's not country." But after actually hearing the demos, Bradley changed his tune.
"He said, 'You know what?' " says Milsap, savoring the retelling of the story. " 'Sumbitch can sing country. I'm gonna give him a year. Let's see what he can do.' "
Within months, Milsap had his first country Top 10 with Penn's "I Hate You," showcasing robust tone, immaculately curling country-soul licks and the amply expressive command of a seasoned stage performer. It signaled devotion to the genre, as opposed to dabbling. And his string of country chart-toppers — 35 No. 1s on Billboard's country singles chart, which, for the record, is nearly twice Garth Brooks' tally — began with Eddie Rabbitt's "Pure Love," released 40 years ago this month. Milsap played it straight down the middle stylistically for several years, until — beginning with 1977's "Almost Like a Song" — his silky sentimental ballads proved to have adult-contemporary pop legs.
"Once I understood country and fell in love with the songwriters and the songs," Milsap says, "I was in for country all the way. ... [Bradley's successor at RCA] Joe Galante always told me, 'If you cross over, that just means you have a larger audience today than you did. That'll be reflected in your sales. You'll sell more records. You get to more people that way.' "
Building his own recording studio, Groundstar — dubbed Ronnie's Place by subsequent owners — enabled Milsap to noodle all night when he wasn't on the road, and that was another factor that contributed to an R&B feel bubbling up in singles like "Stranger in My House" and "There's No Gettin' Over Me," as well as to the unadulterated disco experiment that was "Get It Up." Lacking looping technology, the only way Milsap could extend the track to requisite dance-floor length was to have the band endlessly execute the same rubbery groove.
"I know it's disco and all that," says Milsap, "but Joe Galante, he said, 'Man, you can do anything. I'm just waiting for the day when you'll do a rap record.' I said, 'Well, I don't know if I'll do that. I don't really have a lot of heart for that.' "
Since Milsap brought it up, there's an important difference between many of the ham-fisted hick-hop genre exercises we're hearing now and his pro attitude toward putting his flexible, highly developed chops to use.
"I'm a singer, not a vocal stylist," Milsap wrote in his 1990 autobiography Almost Like a Song. "My breathing is correct; my enunciation is precise. Because of that, I can sing anybody's music. Yet there are stylists whose technical skills are so underdeveloped they can sing only their own songs their own way. They might be remembered for their hits longer than I am. I'll probably be working longer than they are. I can sing whatever the times and the trends demand."
A quarter-century after putting that philosophy to paper, Milsap has this to add: "The one thing I always have to be in order to pass my own test: I've got to be believable."
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