If you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville this Saturday night, go and see Ronnie Milsap at the Ryman Auditorium. He’s one of the great singers of the past half-century’s popular music, even though no one talks about him much any more. And, at the age of 71, he’s in the middle of what he’s decided will be his farewell tour.
Sadly, I’ll be 3,000 miles away. But I’m so glad I saw Milsap before his famous run of 40 No 1 country hits, which started in 1974. Nothing against his country records, of course. Some of them still sound great. But the night in 1971 when I saw him at TJ’s in Memphis, Tennessee, a musicians’ bar to which, at that time, you had to take your liquor in a brown bag, he was still in that state of grace to be found somewhere between country and southern R&B, with the balance tilted in favour of R&B.
It was a late night at the end of a long day, and I had a brown bag with me, so I don’t remember the details. But I do remember that he had a terrific little four-piece band — what else, in a musicians’ hangout in Memphis 40-odd years ago? — including himself on piano. He also had, when heard in person, one of the great white soul voices, in a line of devout Ray Charles worshippers including Charlie Rich, Dan Penn and Troy Seals. The only specific song that I remember from the set is the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, which was on the charts at the time, because it seemed such an improbable choice but worked so brilliantly.
As far as I can tell, he made no records that sounded much like the set he played that night. In 1966 he’d cut “Ain’t No Soul Left in These Old Shoes” with the producer Huey P. Meaux for the Scepter label; released on Pye in the UK, it became a Northern Soul favourite. From the same year there’s a very nice version of an early Ashford and Simpson song, “When It Comes to My Baby”, produced by Stan Green.
All that later success on the country charts seemed to take the R&B edge off his voice, but he could still sing beautifully. Here’s an example: his smooth version of “Any Day Now”, one of Burt Bacharach’s finest. My favourite of his later recordings is the Grammy-winning “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)”, which I love no doubt partly because I was in the USA when it came out in the summer of 1985, cruising the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Washington DC in a rented Buick.
* The picture — uncredited — is taken from a very interesting 2009 interview with Ronnie Milsap by Ken Norton Jr on Engine 145, a roots music blog (www.engine145.com).