When vocalist and piano player Ronnie Milsap worked with Elvis Presley on Presley’s 1970 hit “Kentucky Rain,” Milsap recalls The King possessing a keen sense of the feel and drive he wanted on the song.
“He’d say, ‘More thunder on the piano, Milsap!’ You’d go to a low note on the piano and he just wanted more thunder,” Milsap relates to Billboard.
Thanks to his soulful singing and piano playing, and his exuberant stage presence, the Country Music Hall of Famer Milsap has been bringing the thunder for five decades, on such signature songs as “Stranger in My House,” “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me.”
Tonight (Oct. 3), the wide-ranging scope of his sound and influence on country and pop music will be highlighted during his final Nashville concert, taking place at Bridgestone Arena. A swath of artists will take the stage to honor the 80-year-old Milsap, including Trace Adkins, Ricky Skaggs, Little Big Town, Kelly Clarkson, Charlie McCoy, The McCrary Sisters, Ray Stevens, Steven Curtis Chapman, Pam Tillis, the Gatlin Brothers, BRELAND, Elizabeth Cook and more.
“I think we’re going to blow up the Bridgestone. We’re going to blow it up. I’m very thankful for everyone,” Milsap says of the evening.
In 1977, Milsap won entertainer of the year, and over his career has taken home album of the year four times and male vocalist of the year three times from the CMA Awards. He earned Grammy Awards for his Kenny Rogers duet “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” and his own “Lost in the Fifties Tonight,” “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” and “(I’m A) Stand by My Woman Man.”
Several of the artists on the Bridgestone lineup collaborated with Milsap on his 2019 album The Duets, including Little Big Town, with whom he recorded “Lost in the Fifties,” and Chapman, who sang “You’re Nobody” with the singer.
“They’re really good, wonderful people,” Milsap says of LBT. “They are fun to be around. We did that song on [Jimmy Fallon]’s show and they were just wonderful.”
Of Chapman, “he used to pitch me and Ronnie songs,” Milsap’s current producer, Rob Galbraith, tells Billboard. “Sometimes he would text me from the road and just say, ‘Man, I’m listening to some of Ronnie’s old stuff. Thank you for cutting that music.’”
Milsap has an even closer tie with another performer on the bill: since 1976, Milsap has lived in a Nashville residence he bought from Stevens.
“I loved working with Ray,” Milsap says. “Ray wanted to move out of this house because Webb Pierce lived across the street and he was selling tapes and CDs out of his house there and Ray said he wanted out of that. Well, Webb also played music kind of loud.” He adds, “Ray Stevens is one smart cookie, I’m telling you.”
Having a plethora of artists singing his music and feting his work is light years away from Milsap’s difficult childhood. The North Carolina native was born blind and was subsequently abandoned by his mother, who felt her son’s blindness was a kind of divine punishment. He lived with his grandmother from age one, until he was enrolled in the State School for the Blind in Raleigh at age six.
The school had a premier music program, with Milsap learning classical technique. He took up violin at age seven and piano a year later, all the while soaking up sounds of Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and Fats Domino from the radio. Milsap studied at Young-Harris Junior College in Atlanta, but ultimately turned down a full law school scholarship to chase his dreams of music. His first release came with his 1963 single “Total Disaster.” He first broke through as an R&B singer, earning a top 20 hit on the R&B Songs chart with Ashford & Simpson’s “Never Had It So Good.”
He relocated to Memphis in 1968, working with legendary producer Chips Moman. Milsap was also playing several clubs around Memphis, including The Thunderbird and TJ’s; Presley would bring in Milsap in to play a few of his New Year’s Eve bashes.
“I said, ‘Elvis, any possibility you want to get up and sing anything? We know all your songs,’” Milsap recalls of those parties. “He said, ‘No, I’d rather sit here with my friends and enjoy the evening.’ Elvis went around kissing all the girls ‘Happy New Year.’”
Milsap calls those Memphis years “magical,” saying, “Everything that happened in Memphis, with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis … that energy was all over the place.”
Even so, Milsap’s heart was in country music. “I decided I needed to do what I wanted to do, not what everyone else was asking me to do,” Milsap recalls. After seeing him perform in a nightclub, Charley Pride encouraged Milsap to move to Nashville.
Milsap moved to Nashville in 1972 and quickly landed a gig playing five nights a week at a popular Nashville industry hotspot, Roger Miller’s King of the Road Motor Inn. Milsap, who was managed by Pride’s manager, Jack Johnson, recorded a batch of demo tapes, and they took them to then-RCA Nashville label head Jerry Bradley.
“Jerry said, ‘We know about Milsap. He’s down there in Memphis and he plays rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues. He’s not a country singer,’” Milsap recalls. “Jack played him a song I cut called ‘That Girl Who Waits on Tables,’ and Jerry heard that and said, ‘Well, that S.O.B. really is a country singer.’”
Milsap’s slate of hits in the 1970s and 1980s proved Bradley correct. Milsap’s first Hot Country Singles top 10 hit with RCA Nashville was 1973’s “I Hate You.” “That Girl Who Waits on Tables” reached No. 11 on the same chart a year later. In 1974, he earned his first No. 1 there with the Eddie Rabbitt-penned “Pure Love,” launching a string of chart successes that also included the Grammy-winning “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” as well as “Daydreams About Night Things.”
His blend of country and soul sparked even greater crossover triumphs in the 1980s, most notably with his 1981 hit “(There’s) No Getting’ Over Me,” which spent two weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart but also garnered Milsap his most preeminent pop chart hit, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earning a Grammy for best country vocal performance, male.
Milsap has earned 35 Billboard Hot Country Songs No. 1 hits, many of them recorded in his own studio, which he purchased from Roy Orbison in 1978 and renamed Groundstar Laboratories. Among the songs recorded at the studio with his then-producer Collins were 1979’s “Nobody Likes Sad Songs,” and the Mike Reid-penned 1983 hit “Stranger in My House,” which netted a Grammy for best country song.
“We cut everything there, as soon as Mike Reid would write a song, I’d get in there and record it,” Milsap recalls. Affectionately known as “Ronnie’s Place,” the studio is now under the ownership of Black River Entertainment.
Notably for an artist who grew up steeped in the soulful sounds of artists such as Charles, Lewis and Presley, Milsap was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame last year. Recently, he’s spent time recording in his home studio, cutting classics from the Great American Songbook for a project he hopes to release next year.
“It’s not a small studio; it fits like six or seven people in there, but it’s a wonderful studio,” Galbraith says. “We did an album like this back in 2004 [Just For a Thrill], but we’re doing other songs and more songs that Ronnie grew up on. We cut [Frank Sinatra’s] ‘Witchcraft,’ [Tony Bennett’s] ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’”
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