Country music superstar Ronnie Milsap, when starting out about 50 years ago, was trying to decide if he wanted to stay in show business or pursue an academic career.
The Robbinsville, N.C., native then was a student at Young Harris College in north Georgia. He decided to seek advice about his life path from another blind piano player and singer by the name of Ray Charles.
Milsap, who returns to town to headline Symphony Orchestra Augusta’s Pops! at the Bell concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 14, at Bell Auditorium, recalled that meeting in a call last week.
Tickets to the Valentine’s Day concert are $15, $25, $40. Call (706) 826-4735 or order at soaugusta.org.
“I had met Ray Charles in Atlanta, and I was in his dressing room and said, ‘Everybody in school is trying to counsel me and tell me that I need to do something that is academic like be a teacher or be a lawyer.’
“There was a piano in the dressing room, and I played him three songs. He said, ‘Let me tell you something, son. You can be a lawyer if you want to, but there is a lot of music in your heart. If I was you, I’d follow what your heart tells you to do.’
“And I thought, ‘Boy, that sounds like a great endorsement right there.’”
Charles also gave Milsap another good piece of advice: sound like Ronnie and not Ray.
“There is no doubt that there were a lot of us exposed to Ray Charles’ music who had a tendency to sound a little like Ray with his same phrases or pronunciation of a line,” Milsap admitted.
“I was doing some of that, of course. Ray basically was just trying to encourage us. He said, ‘Just get out and be a part of it. Just soak up everything you can. Plan on as many shows as you can.’ ”
Several years later, Milsap managed to land a recording deal with rhythm and blues label Scepter Records. The label in 1965 released one 45 rpm vinyl record that Charles himself particularly liked.
“I came out with this record called Never Had It So Good that became a Top 5 R&B hit,” Milsap related. “Both that song and the B side were written by Ashford and Simpson out of New York.”
Nickolas Ashford of Fairfield, S.C., and Valerie Simpson of Bronx, N.Y., would have a duet hit with the composition Solid (As A Rock) and would co-write such giant hits as Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, You’re All I Need To Get By, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand) and I’m Every Woman.
Milsap continued, “Ray Charles told me, ‘I love your record, but what I really like is your B side. As a matter of fact, I like it so much I’m going to record it myself.’
“That was a song called Let’s Go Get Stoned. My version didn’t sell that much, but his version (in 1966) sold a million copies. So good for him.”
It was 50 years ago Milsap had out his first single, Total Disaster, which became a regional hit in the Atlanta area.
That would put Milsap on the road to eventually having 40 No. 1 singles and selling more than 35 million albums; ranking as the third best-selling country male artist of all time behind George Strait and Conway Twitty.
“I got that single because of record company owner Huey P. Meaux who also produced Total Disaster,” Milsap said. “He was brought to me by a disc jockey at WQXI radio in Atlanta, Patrick Aloyisius Hughes, who got me the deal.
“Then my record was sent to (Scepter Records owner) Florence Greenberg in New York, and she said, ‘I want to sign him to Scepter Records.’ They had The Shirelles and an artist named Chuck Jackson who did Any Day Now. I’d later record that song. That’s where I got it from.”
And that’s how Milsap ended up on a show with Augusta’s James Brown.
“I started playing on R&B shows and Scepter said, ‘You’re going to Milwaukee to play on a show with James Brown.’ And so, I got to Milwaukee and opened for James Brown. I remembered that I didn’t have many musicians with me, and he had all of those great horns, but it was an exciting time. I already had met James in Atlanta.”
Milsap has loved his many connections to Augustans over the years.
In the 1960s, he played in a rock band called The Oxfords with Buz Newman, son of former Augusta Mayor Lewis A. Newman, and would sleep in the Newmans’ basement in Augusta.
He owes many of his No. 1 hits to Augusta-area reared songwriters including the late Mike Stewart (Don’t You Know How Much I Love You) and Archie Jordan (What A Difference You Made In My Life, It Was Almost Like A Song, Jesus Is Your Ticket To Heaven, Let’s Take The Long Way Around The World).
His brother-in-law, Ray Powell, earned his medical degree at the Medical College of Georgia and now practices in Macon, Ga.
His backup recording vocalists have included former Augustans Bruce Dees and Steve Brantley.
And two of his long-time band members are former Augustans Jamie Brantley (Milsap’s band leader) and Warren Gowers.
“Jamie and Warren are irreplaceable,” Milsap said in his call. “Warren has been with me for more than 30 years. There really is a lot of talent in your town.”
NEXT WEEK: Milsap talks about how he became one of the best-selling music artists of all time thanks to the support and advice of his wife, Joyce.
SHOWS TO KNOW ABOUT:
• Carey Murdock, former North Augustan now living in Nashville, Tenn., new CD Shot in the Dark release party with shows at 9 and 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, at Sky City, 1157 Broad St., with Celia Gary, of Aiken and the 2012 Augusta Chronicle AMPED Music Contest runner-up, opening. Tickets are $5.
• Montgomery Gentry, with opening acts Scotty McCreery and Joe Stevenson, 10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, The Country Club Dance Hall & Saloon.
• Brantley Gilbert, with Kip Moore 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.
• 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 East 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.