Way back in the mid ’60s, a little-known artist by the name of Ronnie Milsap was cutting his teeth playing clubs across America.
Born blind in Robbinsville, North Carolina, he moved down to Georgia on a full scholarship to Young Harris College in pursuit of a law degree, but the courtroom just couldn’t compete with his talent on the keyboard and pull of the music scene, so Ronnie gave up his scholarship and dropped out to join a popular local R&B group called The Dimensions, which had become a staple of the Atlanta music scene, known in particular for their performances at the historic Royal Peacock Club.
Ronnie’s talent was clear from the jump and in 1963 met Atlanta disc-jockey Pat Hughes, who was a big early supporter and played Milsap’s first single, “Total Disaster/It Went To Your Head” on his radio program, which helped propel it to over 15,000 copies sold.
But that initial success was short lived, and Ronnie found himself bouncing around on various labels, cutting a group of sub-par singles while trying to keep the small foothold he found early in his career.
One of those singles did actually spike to Number 18 on the R&B Charts in 1965, but his career still failed to really take off and he started taking jobs as a session musician to pay the bills, recording with some big names like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Elvis Presley, while continuing to play club gigs whenever they presented themselves.
A move to Memphis in the late ’60s didn’t really seem to help, as he just continued what he had started in Atlanta, paying the bills as a session musician while gigging wherever possible.
At this point in his career, it seemed like Ronnie would be just another statistic of the industry: A young, immense talent that just couldn’t catch a wave and got washed out in the tide of new artists popping up daily.
But everything changed one fateful night in the early 1970’s at the Whisky-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, California.
Ronnie was playing a gig at the iconic LA venue and unbeknownst to him, country music legend Charley Pride happened to be in the crowd.
Charley was blown away with Ronnie’s vocal talent, and given he was born in North Carolina and raised on old school country music, sought him out after the performance and tried to convince him to move away from the R&B and go back to his roots with a more country appeal.
Well, if Charley Pride thinks you should make country music, you make country music, so Milsap moved to Nashville in December of 1972, where he began working with Pride’s manager Jack D. Johnson.
He released his first country single in 1973, “I Hate You”, which peaked at Number 10 and lead to him opening for Pride on his 1974 tour, a year in which he got his first 2 Number One singles with “Pure Love” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends”, the later earning him his first Grammy, and the 1974 CMA Male Vocalist of the Year award.
His country music success continued for decades, racking up a total of 35 Number One’s, 6 Grammy’s, 8 CMA Awards (Including the 1977 Entertainer of the Year), 4 ACM Awards, over 35 million records sold, a membership to the Grand Ole Opry and a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
So yeah, safe to say that random run-in with Charley Pride worked out in his favor.
Can you believe that?
If it wasn’t for the great Charley Pride happening to be in the right place at the right time, the country music world may have never gotten to hear the talent of Ronnie Milsap and he would have been just another musician with all the talent that never quite got there.
RIP to the phenomenal Charley Pride.
Thank you not only the music you made throughout your career, but the music you allowed others like Ronnie to make.