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 courtroom minutia just couldn’t compete with the 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 Atlanta disc-jockey Pat Hughes, who was an early and vocal supporter of Ronnie, took a chance and played Milsap’s first single, “Total Disaster/It Went To Your Head” on his radio program, which helped propel it to sell over 15,000 copies.
Unfortunately, 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 maintain the small industry 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 it proved to be an exception rather than a new reality and his career as an artist floundered further, forcing him to take jobs as a session musician to pay the bills. He was fortunate enough to record with some big names like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Elvis Presley, though he always continued to play club gigs whenever they presented themselves in hopes one day he would something would catch.
A move to Memphis in the late ’60s didn’t really seem to help as he fell back into the same pattern he established in Atlanta, paying the bills as a session musician and playing small gigs when they popped up.
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 had somehow booked a show at the iconic LA venue and unbeknownst to him, country music legend Charley Pride happened to be in the crowd that night.
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 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.
It was under Pride and Johnson’s tutelage that he began his foray into Country Music and saw success right right from the jump. His first single, “I Hate You”, peaked at number 10 and Pride brought him on the road to open for him on his 1974 tour. Milsap secured his first two number one’s with “Pure Love” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” that same year, 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 chance 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.
Ronnie is still doing his thing at the age of 81. He released his 32nd career album in 2021 titled A Better Word For Love and continues to play shows here and there, although he played his final one in Nashville last year with a star-studded line-up paying tribute to one of the most successful crossover artists of all-time.
Charley Pride passed away in late 2020 at 86, leaving behind an unmatched legacy of being the first black country superstar, the first black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and one of only 3 black members of the Grand Ole Opry.
While Ronnie tends to get left out of many conversations about the greats of the genre, I for one don’t want to imagine a world without “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “Stranger In My House”, so thank you to the great Charley Pride for allowing that to happen.