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Dora Lewis

The Man… The Legend

50 years of Milsap!

Born blind (his family thought it was retribution for sin), Ronnie Milsap’s grandparents gave the boy over to the North Carolina State School for the Blind hoping for a better chance. There, Milsap discovered music – deviating from the school’s classical curriculum to explore the nascent realms of race music, rock & roll and jazz.

Being the brilliant kid he was, it wasn’t long until he’d found his way into the local clubs and the tiny indie labels.

Suddenly, he was sharing bills with Ray Charles and James Brown on a circuit that included the Howard Theater, the Royal Peacock, and more.

It was Ray Charles who told the young pianist when he was offered a scholarship to Young Harris College’s law program, “Son, I can hear the music inside you…” – It settled Milsap’s fate.

Living in Atlanta, playing clubs and doing sessions, Ronnie caught wind that JJ Cale was looking for a keyboard player. Cale hired him. Ronnie went on to work at the Whiskey for a good while.

From Atlanta, Ronnie moved to Memphis where he was doing sessions with Chips Moman, where Elvis famously commanded, “More thunder on the keys, Milsap,” during the recording of “Kentucky Rain.” It was there he was asked to play the Whiskey on the famed Sunset Strip in LA. While staying at the notorious Hyatt House, Charley Pride saw the white kid playing rock & soul and suggested giving Nashville a try.

Now, looking back on the last 50 years, no country singer had as smooth a touch as Ronnie Milsap. 

Blending country and soul so elegantly it could often appeal to a pop audience — and it did: (There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me” went all the way to number five on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1981 — Milsap also had deep roots in soul.

Long before he was a fixture on the country charts — during his prime, he racked up 35 number one hits — Milsap cracked the R&B charts with a version of Ashford & Simpson Never Had It So Good,” and that familiarity with rhythm & blues was apparent throughout his work. Nevertheless, his strength lay in taking it easy, a quality evident on Pure Love,” his breakthrough number one in 1974.

Arriving just after Charlie Rich brought a similar country-soul synthesis into the upper reaches of the charts, Pure Love” rocketed to number one on Billboard’s country charts, followed to that position by Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” — a one-two punch that turned the singer into a star.

The Country Music Association would name Milsap Male Vocalist of the Year in 1976 and 1977, a sign of his runaway popularity in the late 70s.

Between 1974’s (I’d Be) A Legend in My Time” and 1979′s Nobody Likes Sad Songs,” he hit the top of the Billboard country charts ten times, with Daydreams About Night Things” (1975), (I’m A) Stand By My Woman Man” (1976), It Was Almost Like a Song” (1977), and Only One Love in My Life” (1978) spending multiple weeks in the pole position.

It Was Almost Like a Song” became his first single to crack the pop Top 40, climbing all the way to number 16 while reaching seven on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was a harbinger of what was to come in the first half of the 80s.

During the early 80s, Milsap subtly adopted some Urban Cowboy and soft rock production techniques, a move that consolidated his position in the Top 10 in both the country and adult contemporary charts. Beginning with 1980′s Why Don’t You Spend the Night,” Milsap dominated the top position on Billboard’s country charts, reaching number one 13 times between 1980 and 1984. One of the rare times he missed the top slot was with 1983′s Stranger in My House,” a song that went to eight on the Adult Contemporary chart and peaked at 23 on Billboard’s Top 40. It arrived after a streak when Milsap was crossing over into the pop charts with regularity, beginning with 1980′s Smoky Mountain Rain,” which went to 24 pop and number one AC. The following year brought (There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” his biggest pop hit: it reached number five on the Hot 100, number two on Adult Contemporary.

The next two years were his most successful as a crossover act, thanks to the hits I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World” (1981), Any Day Now” (1982),” He Got You” (1982), and Don’t Know How Much I Love You” (1983).” This hot streak led the Academy of Country Music to named Milsap their Top Male Vocalist in 1982.

Milsap maintained his strength on Billboard’s country charts during the second half of the 80s, scoring another ten number one hits between 1985 and 1989, including the Kenny Rogers duet Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” which took home the Best Country Vocal Performance Duet Grammy in 1987.

Only two of these managed to be major Adult Contemporary hits, though, and both were heavily nostalgic: the oldies ode Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night”) went to eight in 1985 — and Happy, Happy Birthday Baby,” a cover of a 50s chestnut by the Tune Weavers.

As the 90s began, Milsap remained a reliable hitmaker, reaching the Billboard Country Top 10 another four times in 1990 and 1991, but country radio began to embrace the new generation spearheaded by Garth Brooks around the time Milsap left his longtime home of RCA for Liberty.

True Believer,” the title song of his 1993 debut for Liberty, proved to be his last Top 40 hit, peaking at 30. Liberty released only one album from Milsap before he left for Capitol Nashville. There, he re-recorded his hits as Sings His Best Hits for Capitol Records in 1996.

For the next few years, Milsap worked on the oldies circuit, finally making his return to the studio with the Image Entertainment-released Just for a Thrill , a collection of standards, in 2004.

He returned to RCA in 2006 for My Life, an album designed as comeback to the country mainstream; it reached 46 on Billboard’s Album Charts, his first placement there since 1991.

Three years later, Milsap delivered Then Sings My Soul, his first collection of gospel and inspirational material; it peaked at 19 on the Country charts and eight on the Christian charts. Bigger Picture released Country Again in 2011, but his next heavily promoted release was Summer Number Seventeen, a collection of oldies covers which appeared on Sony/Legacy in 2014.

Following Gospel Greats in 2016, Milsap released The Duets, a 2018 collection that paired him with old friends like Willie Nelson and new stars like Kacey Musgraves .