Monday, October 05, 2009

Ronnie Milsap was planning to study law; Ray Charles had other advice

By Jacob Bennett
Evansville Courier & Press
Photo courtesy of Splash! Photography
Thursday, August 23, 2007

In the early 1980s, Ronnie Milsap's record label encouraged him to tilt his country songs toward pop. The result was 40 No. 1 country singles, which puts Milsap behind only George Strait and Conway Twitty.

It was a spectacular string of success for a talented piano player who, because of congenital blindness, had been encouraged to pursue a more stable profession than music. Milsap hasn't had a No. 1 hit in a few years, but he's still recording and still doing what he loves even more than that — performing live.

He's scheduled to play shows Friday and Saturday at Casino Aztar.

He called the Courier & Press last week to talk about having too many hits to play at once, recording with Elvis Presley and how Ray Charles changed his life.

Q: When you play two shows in a town, do you change the set lists up?
I do change them up. A lot of times, we will make a set list, we'll talk about it before the show, and sometimes two or three songs into it we tear the set list up because somebody makes a request. We've got 40 No. 1 songs, and we cannot play them all. We've devised a couple of medleys. They're very inclusive. It plays a couple of minutes of one song and it backs up into a couple of minutes of another song.

Q: Do people ever request songs the band doesn't know?
There have been a couple of those. There was one I eventually got to playing, "The Future Is Not What It Used to Be." (When fans request an obscure song), they may not get the whole band, but I can play it at the piano.

Q: When you're having a record-breaking streak of chart success, do you realize it at the time?
It's kind of like Chet Atkins told me one time. I asked, "How in the world did you plan on all those dates out on the road and produce 30 artists and be the executive head of RCA here in Nashville?" He said, "Ronnie, I honestly didn't even think about it. I just did it."
Even if you just look at the schedule, it looks so overwhelming.

Q: This week is the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death. You recorded with him, didn't you?
I never, ever thought in my lifetime I would get to meet Elvis; he was just the voice in my radio speakers that was just magic. I wound up in Memphis (in 1969) and he wanted me to play on the sessions. He thanked me for hitting that high note on "Kentucky Rain." He wanted some thunder, so I used that left hand of the piano to create that thunder. He pretty much wanted what he wanted on the sessions, and we did it.

It was interesting to be around him because he was the voice of my generation. I got to find out what a sweet, very generous, down-to-earth guy that he really was. It was just like you and I talking right now. He died way too early.
There have been so many people like that that have come through your life. I was told it would be impossible for a blind guy to make it in the music business: "You'll wind up out on the street; you'll fail; you'll be a liability to the state."
When I was 20 I got into a concert and I got to meet Ray Charles in his dressing room. I said, "I love music but I'm on scholarship to study law." He said, "Well, play me something."
There was a piano in the dressing room. I said, "You're the high priest. You're my hero," I played him these three songs. He said, "Well, you can be a lawyer if you want to. But there's a lot of music in your heart. And if I were you I would follow what my heart tells me to do." From then I really started to find a way to make a living in the music business.

Q: You said your record company encouraged you to chase pop success. Which is more pop: country music then or now?
There are folks that have gone way beyond anything that I did. There are some country artists that are pushing the edge of the difference between country and pop music.
You can stay inside the country format today and sell multiplatinum. There was a time when you could not do that. I think every generation speaks for itself and they should. They should have the chance to speak for themselves.
I think there are a lot of good artists that are really setting the woods on fire.

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