Country artist Ronnie Milsap has 35 No. 1 hits to this credit, six Grammys and legions of fans that stretch over his 50-plus year career.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Milsap was at the top of the charts with crossover hits like “Smoky Mountain Rain,” “It Was Almost Like A Song,” “Any Day Now” and “There’s No Getting Over Me.”
Today at age 76, Milsap is still making music in the same vein that made him famous. And he’s showing that nothing is about to slow him down as he’s on a new tour and released a new album called “Ronnie Milsap: The Duets.”
The famous blind pianist and singer will be making a stop Saturday at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in downtown Frederick.
The new album
Usually at this stage in his career, Milsap said he would have been releasing greatest hits albums.
“But we already had three greatest hits packages for RCA,” he said during a recent telephone interview from his Nashville, Tennessee, home. “Well my producer and I were talking and I said, ‘Well, I can’t do that. Why don’t I do some of my favorite songs?’”
The result was “Duets,” a 13-track album featuring artists Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Jason Aldean, Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town, Lucy Angel, Jessie Key and Steven Curtis Chapman.
Two artists appear posthumously on the album: Leon Russell, who died in 2016, on the tune “Misery Loves Company”; and Tony Gentry, one half of Montgomery Gentry, who died in 2017, on “Shakey Ground.”
After spending years in the studio, “Duets,” was released in January 2019 and is available on both CD and vinyl.
Although it should go without saying, the album might feature duets but don’t expect the big names to join him on the tour. However, Milsap said there are plenty of ways they will be a part of the show.
“There’s all kinds of things you can do with technology,” he said.
One person who doesn’t appear on his album that Milsap would still love to work with is fellow pianist Elton John.
“I’m still talking about that because if we could ever line that up, my band could brush up on ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ Cuz that’s what I’d like to cut,” he said.
Milsap said John has had a great career “and made it fashionable to play piano, and I play piano. It’s a big deal again.”
Shaping a career in music
The piano has always been a big deal for Milsap. Born in North Carolina and raised in poverty by his grandparents, he was sent at age 5 to the Governor Morehead School for the blind.
There he showed an aptitude for the piano and his teachers trained him in classical music. He learned to play several instruments including the violin and cello, but the piano became his key instrument.
Milsap had dreams of becoming a teacher or a lawyer after he won a scholarship to Young Harris College in Georgia. But after he joined a group called the Dimensions, he found that he had more of a passion for music and made it his full-time career.
“I went back to Young Harris and said I don’t know that there’s anything academic that’s gonna get my attention like music does,” he said.
Soon after he met his wife Joyce. They were married in 1965 and moved to Memphis.
It was a successful move for Milsap.
In 1965, he had his first hit with the Ashford & Simpson-penned “Never Had it So Good,” which found its way on the R&B charts, peaking at No. 16.
The B-side contained the song “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” That’s when Ray Charles rang him up.
“He said ‘Ronald, I love that record you got, ‘Never Had it So Good.’ That’s a good record, but what I really like is the B-side. Matter of fact, I like it so much, I think I’m going to cut it myself.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ We thought we could flip the record, maybe have another hit here.”
It became a million-selling single for Ray Charles.
Milsap had the chance to be a session musician for Elvis Presley on 1969’s “Kentucky Rain.” He said he was able to chat with Presley during that time.
“He was a fun guy to talk to,” he said. “And he had so much experience in the studio.”
Years later, Milsap was given the demo of the Eddie Rabbit penned “Pure Love.” Rabbit also wrote “Kentucky Rain” for Presley. Milsap cut “Pure Love” after some new arrangements, and also “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” both on the same day — Jan. 8, 1974 (Presley’s birthday) — at RCA Records. Both became No.1 hits for Milsap.
Milsap said one summer he kept playing a demo that his wife wasn’t fond of and she told him, “Why do you keep playing that thing? That guy sounds awful,” he recalled.
But Milsap found something he liked in the song and sat down at the piano and worked up another arrangement. That tune was “It Was Almost Like A Song.”
His wife told him that the new song he was playing she enjoyed. He called Tom Collins, his producer, and told the songwriter Archie Jordan that they were going to have a No. 1 hit.
In 1977, it became Milsap’s eighth No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Charts. It also became his first Billboard Hot 100 entry and peaked at No. 16.
Milsap has a wealth of stories on his 50-year-plus career. And with an album like “Duets,” he’ll have plenty more to tell.
Looking to the future
As for what’s next, Milsap said he’s always looking for new ideas and songs.
“Nashville’s full of incredible songwriters. I probably should have tried harder to do that myself,” he said. “I’ve always fallen into songs.”
He said he still doesn’t get tired of singing all of his hits.
“I love singing them all. I’m thankful for all of those. They’re all like children in a way, you know,” he said. “But I spent a lot of time and I’m very meticulous about the kind of work I do to make records happen. And I still do this kind of stuff and I’ll probably do it as long as I’m alive.”
Follow Crystal Schelle on Twitter: @crystalschelle.