Pollstar Cover Story: Ronnie Milsap, The Tireless 76-Year-Old Phenom, Keeps On Keeping On

Time After Time:
Time After Time: Ronnie Milsap, who’s had 40 No. 1 hits, is pictured circa 1970. Photo by Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images

Ronnie Milsap has always blurred lines and pushed boundaries. Whether showing up as a white kid with a Top 5 R&B hit (“Never Had It So Good” on Scepter Records), to the surprise of the regulars at the Howard Theater, or bringing a steamy soulful undertow to country music in the ’70s and ’80s, the six-time Grammy winner and Country Music Hall of Fame member has always gone where the music was.
So, it’s no surprise that to celebrate his 76th birthday, the 1977 Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year is once again flying in the face of expectation. Milsap not only announced the first leg of his 76 for 76 Tour, he’s releasing The Duets, an album with an eclectic roster of legitimate star power to revisit his classics and a few new songs.
“Milsap brings so many people together,” reflects William Morris / Endeavor Nashville co-head Greg Oswald. “Because of the range of material and how long he’s charted records, Ronnie’s music speaks to not just one, two or three, but often four or five generations. In a world where so few things bring people of different ages together, Milsap’s music works for kids, for adults, for people who feel like music left them behind. And everybody always has fun at a Milsap show, which is ultimately the reason for going out, and me, as his agent, I get to harken back to the early ’80s when I promoted my first Milsap shows as a fledgling dude in the biz! That’s happy stuff.”

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A whole lot of music – and a whole lot of people – is just how the blind Carolina-born piano player likes it. “The more the merrier,” he laughs. “With this record, all these guests … and on the road, it’s the same. Bring me a bunch of people who love music, and it’s gonna be something!”
Moving from icons (George Strait, Billy Gibbons) to legends (Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton), superstars (Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan) to cutting edge hipsters (Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town), newcomers (Jessie Key, Lucy Angel), as well as the final recordings of Leon Russell and Montgomery Gentry’s Troy Gentry, Milsap’s Jan. 18 Riser House/Sony release spans ages, genres and some of his favorite songs.
“When you’ve done as many things as Ronnie has,” marvels Gold Mountain Entertainment’s Burt Stein, his manager since 1993, “his desire to seek new things is what drives him. He doesn’t just do something, he wants it to be exactly right. He’d never done a proper duets album, and there were so many people he wanted to record with. All I could think is what’s going to hold this group together? And of course, it’s … Ronnie!”
Ronnie Milsap and Luke Bryon
Ronnie Milsap and Luke Bryan, who appears on Milsap’s new The Duets album, perform at the “ACM Presents: Superstar Duets” in Arlington, Texas, April 17, 2015. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images/dcp.

Three years in the making, Milsap jokes, “This’ll probably be the only duets record I ever make. Trying to get all the schedules together …”
But Joe Galante, the RCA/BMLG label chief for practically his entire career, stresses Milsap’s tenacity and quality control as the reason for Milsap’s endurance. He recalls, “We’d have 80 stations out of 100 on a song, and the phone would ring. It would be Ronnie, going, ‘I heard the song on the radio, and it needs a better mix.’ He could hear things nobody else could – and he was so musical, he took risks nobody else thought to.”
Those risks paid off. After being sent away to Raleigh, N.C.’s Governor Morehead School for the Blind as a young boy, Milsap’s focus became the radio. It wasn’t long before he began playing local clubs, making connections and trying to find his way. When a scholarship to Rice University to study law was offered, no less than Ray Charles counseled, “I can feel the music in your heart. You need to do that.”
Now a legend, it wasn’t always so. Like any dreamer trying to make it, only fondness remains when Milsap says, “My wife Joycie pulled a little trailer behind her VW. I had a Vox organ, a single keyboard and we’d go! 
One time, we were at the Regal Theater in Chicago with Bobby Blue Bland, Billy Stewart and Maxine Brown.
“Those early tours, we went everywhere we could play. We went to Milwaukee to play with James Brown, and we had a rehearsal that afternoon. It was fantastic: the horns, everything. But James Brown decided he was gonna shut it down, and told the musicians, ‘Put your horns up to your lips, but don’t play.’”
Where most artists would be mortified, Milsap laughs as he tells the story. Into his sixth decade still chasing the dream, he’s known lean times, fat times, but mostly good times. Whether it was playing in a Memphis club and having Elvis come listen, or scratching up work at Fort Bragg, there was always music and always the woman he married, Joyce Milsap, on Oct. 30, 1965.
“I’d call up there, and they’d have you work a service club at 2, tear it down and work another club at 4, then go over to the Officer’s Club from 6 to 11. I’d call and say, ‘You got any work?’ We’d go camp out at the 4-0-1 Motel in a room with a bed that didn’t have room for two!  
“We’d wake up, go down to Woolworth’s for lunch. They’d have tomato soup and mac ’n’ tomatoes. Then after the gig, Joyce would heat up a can of Beefaroni for me. It was real hard, and we were kinda working for nothing, but it was the road to where I wanted to be.”
That road took the couple to TJ’s in Memphis, where he also played piano on sessions for famed producer Chips Moman; one session was Presley’s “Kentucky Rain,” where the King commanded, “More thunder on the keys, Milsap.” It took them to Atlanta’s Playboy Club, where they paid him $500 a week, “I’d smoke a Salem, have a scotch and soda, then I’d play everything from the songs of ‘South Pacific’ to Frank Sinatra during dinner and cocktails, then from 9 ‘til midnight, I’d switch to Wilson Pickett, that kind of thing.”
It was a good gig, until some guys came down from the North who wanted to manage him. “I asked, ‘How’m I gonna find songs?’” Milsap remembers. “They said, ‘We’ll find ’em.’ They kept saying they thought I was going to be cooperative, and Joycie and I didn’t know if we were going to get out of there alive.”
Ronnie Milsap
It Was Almost Like A Song: Ronnie and Joyce Milsap attend Ronnie Milsap Exhibit Opening Reception At The Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville on Feb. 5, 2015. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum)

They did. Word of a possible job with JJ Cale reached them, so the pair headed to the Whiskey a Go Go on L.A.’s famed Sunset Strip. The job didn’t materialize, but Milsap got a two-week booking at the hallowed rock club. Suddenly, things started to click.

“Linda Ronstadt came backstage, and told me, ‘Nobody gets a standing ovation here.’ And Charlie Pride suggested I should give Nashville a try.”
Ironic that the black man singing country tells the white soul singer to cross back over. But with a little help, Milsap took up residence at Nashville’s King of the Road Lounge – finding an ally in legendary Sun Studios vet “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who was producing Johnny Cash, Don Williams and Pride.
“Jack went to (RCA’s) Jerry Bradley, who tells him, ‘I know Ronnie Milsap! He’s a soul singer, not a country singer.’ And Jack said, ‘Well, you just listen to this…’. Next thing I know, Jerry Bradley shows up with Tom Collins, wanting me to go into Studio A right away.”
“The Girl Who Waits on Tables” hit the country charts. “I Hate You” went Top 10, followed by “Pure Love” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends,” a pair of No. 1s from 1974’s Pure Love. There was no looking back. As Milsap recalls, “It came really fast when it finally happened. I’ve been lucky.”
Country Music Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young has a theory. “Ronnie’s dominating the radio airwaves in the ’70s and ’80s is hard to overstate. He shifts with ease and authenticity between stone country ballads like Kristofferson’s ‘Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends,’ one of the most stunning vocals in country music history, and hyper-contemporary material, and he never sounds like he’s just playing a part. He sings from the inside out, with ever present heart and soul. He understands country music not as a limited format, but as a big tent genre.”
Indeed, 40 No. 1s, including massive Top 40 and AC hits “Almost Like A Song,” “Smoky Mountain Rain,” “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” “Any Day Now,” “Stranger In My House,” “A Woman In Love,” and “Lost In The Fifties Tonight,” saw Milsap become a singular force in country music. As Taste of Country’s Billy Dukes noted on Twitter, “In researching the ’80s list, I learned what a powerhouse Ronnie Milsap is. More 1980s No. 1 hits than George Strait.”
Beyond winning three CMA Male Vocalists and four Album of the Year Awards, Milsap was all about taking his music to the people. After his days on the R&B circuit, Milsap’s country baptism was on the road with Pride. “I watched him, and I learned from him,” Milsap says. “His rapport was so good with the audience, they just loved him and the music. Then when I won a couple of CMA Awards, he said, ‘You’re gonna have to go do your own show now …’ And so I did.”
Milsap, who honed by playing all kinds of rooms, was a natural headliner. He laughs at what headlining used to mean. “Joyce and I had a bus. The band had a bus. The crew had a bus. Everybody knew what to do, and we went down the road. It was pretty simple.”
Galante marvels at how fearless a blind man playing a piano onstage could be. “He’d jump up on the piano, or taking these little baby steps towards the front of the stage, knowing they’d put a two-by-four out there. He’d be making jokes about being blind, lifting his glasses and saying, ‘What a fine looking congregation we have tonight.’ He had this disability, and he played to it – but he never let it get in the way of entertaining.
“Whatever it was, he wanted to experience it. He wanted to feel it all, and he really gave it to you. Whether it was the way he sang those songs, pushed the band, talked to the audience, he wanted to give everything.”
Charisma can’t be learned. Milsap has had it since “Almost Like A Song” crossed over, and audiences started being broader than standard country fans. But there’s a lot of showmanship picked up in the years before stardom hit.
Shrewd turbo-promoter Louis Messina, Jr. tapped Milsap to go on between George Strait and a young Taylor Swift for a massive 2007 arena tour. In spite of working with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Willie Nelson, Messina recalls, “I had the opportunity to have Ronnie on the George Strait tour with Taylor. Night after night, I would watch him and was blown away each show. Sixty minutes, every song a hit. Even George would come out and stand behind a curtain to watch.”
Strait’s reverence is clear. A true stylist himself, Strait’s “Houston Solution” performance on The Duets is heartworn with a straightforward country delivery and just enough note bending to match Milsap’s own wide-open soul turn on country. The pair savor the shuffle from “Stranger Things Have Happened” like two veterans catching up over good whiskey.
Ronnie Milsap
Ronnie Milsap performs at the Grand Ole Opry’s 10th annual Opry Goes Pink event on Oct. 26 2018. Photo by Allister Ann

“Today’s biggest stars, like Luke and Jason, were raised on him. The icons and legends, like Dolly, Strait and Willie, see him as a peer. Then the hip, hardcore musical acts, like Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town and Leon Russell, couldn’t wait to get into the studio and play,” Oswald said. “Willie Nelson may be the only other artist out there that spans as much musical ground as Milsap. Heck, he even put the song Ronnie found for their duet on his last album! That says something.”

There’s palpable joy to all the collaborations. Singing with Milsap for everyone involved is a bucket list moment. Luke Bryan leans into “Stranger In My House” with competitive passion, sparking the high notes with genuine desperation, while Kacey Musgraves offers a flirty one-upswomanship glisten to “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me” and Dolly Parton reworks “Smoky Mountain Rain” from the woman’s point of view with her own fiery tempest of moving on.
Little Big Town, who joins Milsap for his Ryman Auditorium tour kick-off/birthday show and on “The Tonight Show” with The Roots Feb. 6, temper the yearning Grammy-winner “Lost In The Fifties Tonight” with the sweetness of celebrating long-ago love. Lush, sleek and pure, it’s that seductive part of Milsap’s music that reached across formats and genres.
“When I’m looking for songs, I want something I really love, but also something I can push all my emotions into,” Milsap explains. “I’ve always believed these songs will be here 100 years after we’re gone, and it’s important to find things that will mean something to people after we’re gone.
Ronnie Milsap
All of the Lights: Ronnie Milsap at the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, Calif. at the Empire Polo Field on April 28, 2018. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

“And when you’re getting out on the road, it makes the show so much better, because the people really want to hear those songs. They’re waiting for ’em.”

Taking that contract seriously, Milsap’s got his pre-tour game down pat. “First thing, I have to go over to my guitar player’s house and get the whole band together. We play a bunch of the songs, and see what everybody’s feeling. We have to make sure we can still play ’em, but also that we’ve really got something to bring the songs … 
“Because you can’t just do the same show, and you wouldn’t want to. I don’t believe in rehearsing in public. I saw Lou Rawls do it in concert, and I thought, ‘No way!’ You make a mistake, and it’s all out there.”
Keeping the band hot, refusing to Xerox the same ol’ show and recognizing the dignity of his stature, Milsap & Co. makes adjustments. He admits, “I’m too old to jump on the damn piano anymore, but I don’t mind. The songs are so solid and this band is so strong, I just put everything in there. 
“Today, it’s 29 buses and 14 tractor-trailers for all that production. I can’t compete with all that, but I do what I do, and it works. If you put it into the music when you make it, the music will stand up without everything else.
“I’ve always had the attitude this stuff is gonna live for hundreds of years. It can’t come out ‘til it’s ready. Since I owned my own studio, I could be in there ‘til four o’clock in the morning chasing what the songs needed to be. Did a lot of pop stuff, AC stuff, on Back To The Grindstone, I sang with Patti LaBelle and the Harlem Boys Choir. I always followed the music where it wanted to go, and it’s still taking me where I need to be.”
It’s true. Milsap’s magic is the way his recordings transcend time and genre. When Taylor Swift finished that George Strait tour, her father Scott knew just what to give Messina as a thank you for such a coveted opening slot. Messina remembers, “When the tour was over Scott Swift bought me a Ronnie Milsap vinyl, which I still have.”
And at the Hall of Fame, the always elegant music aficionado Kyle Young concurs. “Ronnie’s had such a positive impact in broadening country music’s audience. He changed country music, helped prove its appeal in non-traditional markets, and provided inspiration and entertainment. Ronnie is more beloved than imitated, because no one else possesses his unique skill set: Attempting to sound like Ronnie Milsap is a fruitless endeavor.”
With Nashville’s Tennessean headlining an A-1 cover tease, “Retirement’s Not In Milsap’s Vocabulary” and Nashville Scene enthusing, “the great master of pop-country R&B crossover lands at a hyper-critical moment in country that jibes with his artistic ambitions” with a project that does “a good job of contextualizing one of country’s most gifted – and elusive – artists,” leave it to Oswald to boil it all down perfectly. In an email, he writes, “When most people are slowing down, Ronnie’s music feeds him. He lives to be on that stage, to take his music out to people and make them happy. And because he’s built a career on such solid music, the audience is still there. It’s pretty simple, but true.”