It’s appropriate that country music superstar Ronnie Milsap is performing with Symphony Orchestra Augusta at Bell Auditorium on Valentine’s Day because he has had a love affair with his wife, Joyce, for an amazing 48 years.
“You’re just thankful for it when it works, Don,” Milsap said in a call telling how he and Joyce Reeves met while he was attending Young Harris College in the north Georgia mountains.
“Staying together is a lot of give and take and a whole lot of compromise, and that’s all right,” Milsap said. “That’s the way a relationship works, and she’s always been there for me.”
They met in Young Harris at a dinner party that Reeves’ cousin was having.
“I started dating her for several months, and it was close to a year before we finally got married (in 1965).
“Joyce gave me a ride to school one Sunday morning and my zoology teacher saw me the next day and said, ‘Gawd, Ronnie, who was that cool blonde who brought you to school yesterday?’ I said, ‘That’s a young lady I’m dating.’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to hold on to her.’ I said, ‘I’m going to try,’ and I did.”
The singer, who was born on Jan. 16, 1943, just across the Georgia state line in Robbinsville, N.C., said it was Joyce who made the critical decision for Milsap to try to pursue his music career in Nashville.
He had experienced some minor success in Atlanta and Memphis and had been encouraged to stay in the music business by such legendary performers as Ray Charles.
“We were living in Memphis, and I was talking to Joyce about all the work I was doing,” he said. “I was doing jingles at a company in the afternoon and then I’d go over and record at American studios if they had some sessions going on, and then I had a nighttime gig at T.J.’s (restaurant and lounge). I was working hard, Don, but just was not getting very much done.”
Others, however, might see it differently because Milsap, by that time, did have a Top 5 R&B hit single (Never Had It So Good), an album on Warner Bros. Records and had played piano and sung background on such memorable Memphis recording sessions as Elvis Presley’s Don’t Cry Daddy and Kentucky Rain.
“I told Joyce that maybe I should have listened to the folks at Young Harris and in North Carolina and gone on to law school. But she said, ‘No, no, what we’re going to do is go to Nashville and see how that works.’ She’s the one who said, ‘We’ve got to try Nashville or you never will be happy until we try it.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s go.’ ”
The couple moved to Nashville, Tenn., in December 1972, and Milsap started playing at the Whiskey A-Go-Go nightclub. That would change his life through a chance meeting with Charley Pride’s manager, Jack D. Johnson, who was in his audience one night.
Johnson told Milsap that he was looking for someone to play regularly in the rooftop lounge of the King of the Road motel in Nashville owned by singer Roger Miller. He became Milsap’s manager. Milsap recalls Johnson saying, “Ronnie, I can’t make you a star. You’ll have to do that yourself.”
Johnson booked a recording session for Milsap in January 1973 at Jack Clements’ studio to make some demonstration recordings and hired all the “A” players, including Lloyd Green on steel guitar and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano. Background vocals were provided by a popular recording session group, The Nashville Edition.
“We went in and cut three songs: I Hate You, All Together Now Let’s Fall Apart and That Girl Who Waits on Tables,” Milsap related. “He took that tape over to (RCA Records producer) Jerry Bradley. He said, ‘Jerry, I want you to hear this new guy I’m working with. His name is Ronnie Milsap.’
“Jerry said, ‘Oh, man, I know Ronnie Milsap. Every time we get ready to celebrate something, we drive to Memphis to see him. He’s a rock-and-roll singer. He’s a blues singer. He is not a country singer.’ Jack said, ‘Well, just listen to this tape,’ and Jerry did.
“His reaction was, ‘You know what. That SOB can sing country.’ He said, ‘I’m going to sign him for a year,’ and I signed my first RCA contract on April 15, 1973.”
Johnson immediately put Milsap out on tour opening for Pride, who already was a superstar and huge money-maker for RCA.
“I’d be in the wings every night to see how he was doing it; what his show pacing was all about, how he talked to the audience … and the choice of the songs he would do that night,” Milsap noted. “All of that is really important.”
The rest is history – Milsap went on to sell more than 35 million albums, have 40 No. 1 hit singles and be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1976.
He said he has no idea how many single recording sessions he has done over the past 50 years since his first single, Total Disaster, was released on the Warner Bros. label in 1963. It became a hit in the Atlanta area where he was living.
“I would give Jerry Bradley an album, and RCA would just release two singles from it. Then they would want me to move onto another album. I’d say, ‘But we’ve got another (potential hit) single on there that we need to come out with,’ and Jerry would say, ‘Hey, you sold gold on that, and I just want you to go back to the studio and give me another album.’ I was turning out like three albums a year.
“If I did think that I really had something special … I would take a copy by Jerry Bradley’s office and play it for him. I did that with It Was Almost Like A Song. I said, ‘Is this thing going anywhere?’ and he said, ‘Oh, gawd, yes. Now don’t take that steel guitar off in the middle of it.’ But I did and went in there with some synthesizers and took it back to Jerry. He said, ‘Oh, you took the steel guitar off. I didn’t want you to do that, but I think this is a huge record for you.’
“And it surely was. Your first million-seller single is always really special. And that was mine with It Was Almost Like A Song by Archie Jordan. Boy, what a great songwriter he is. He’s a songwriting man. That was an interesting recording session, because Archie and I both played pianos on that.”
Jordan, a native of Augusta who now lives in Metter, Ga., also wrote or co-wrote the Milsap hits What A Difference You Made In My Life, Jesus Is Your Ticket To Heaven and Let’s Take The Long Way Around the World. He and his wife, Cathy, are planning to attend Milsap’s concert at Bell Auditorium.
Milsap said he is working on another album. “I’ve been playing around with this one for about six months. They are just songs that I’ve stumbled onto that I really like a lot. Who knows how it’s finally going to wind up, but we have a lot of people interested in this.”
That’s an understatement since for the past 50 years a lot of people all over the world have been interested in Ronnie Milsap.
SHOWS TO KNOW ABOUT:
• Brantley Gilbert, with Kip Moore and Brian Davis opening, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, James Brown Arena; $37, $29.75, $24.75.
• Mike Farris & the Roseland Rhythm Revue, 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 15, Imperial Theatre; $24, $19, $13. Final concert in the 2012-13 Morris Museum of Art’s Budweiser True Music Southern Song & Soul Series.
• Russell Schneider, athletic director at Fox Creek High School in North Augusta, performs his Elvis tribute artist show, 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at American Legion Post 71, 333 E.Spring Grove Ave., North Augusta; dinner benefit for the Ladies’ Auxiliary’s Veterans and Girls State programs and the Post Building Fund; $15 singles, $25 couples, reserve by calling Linda Smiley at (706) 831-9624 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Nashville-based comedian and songwriter Greg Hall will perform at Somewhere in Augusta, 2820 Washington Road, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, with Valarie Storm. Admission is $8. Call (706) 739-0002.