Country Music Hall of Fame members Ronnie Milsap has been releasing albums since 1965, as well as playing studio gigs for Elvis, including playing piano and harmonizing with the King on “Kentucky Rain” and touring with JJ Cale.
In the early 1970s, Milsap was one of those rare artists who was ruling the country and pop music charts with a string of hits such as “Daydreams About Night Things,” “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life” and “It Was Almost Like a Song.” The hits continued for Milsap well through the 1980s with songs such as “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “Stranger in My House.” In fact, Milsap had top 10 hits for 16 years in a row.
Country music’s “piano man” returns to Biloxi on Friday for an 8 p.m. show at the IP Casino Resort. Tickets start at $25 and are available at Ticketmaster.com.
Q: JJ Cale was such a great songwriter. What do you remember about your days playing with him?
A: I remember a DJ friend in Atlanta told me that JJ Cale was playing at the Whiskey ‘A Go-Go and that I should go over there because he needs a piano player. He told me I’d be talking to Chick Hedrick, who ran the place and some other clubs in Atlanta and to tell Chick I wanted $500 a week. So, I went there and I met with Chick and he said he would pay me $450 a week. I said, “Chick, I think I’m worth $500 a week” and he said, “I do, too, Ronnie.” I thought I had blown it right then and there and lost my first job.
I loved working with JJ. It was a whole lot of fun. He’s quite a songwriter and a good guitar player. I remember he was leaving to go to California and he wanted me to go with him. I said, “JJ, man, I can’t do that because I’m about to get married.” If I had gone, my life would have taken a much different turn.
He was a lot of fun. He sure liked to drink a lot. He drank a lot of whiskey.
Q: In the years after playing with Cale, you set up shop in Memphis working for Chips Moman at American Sound Studios. Did you enjoy recording with Elvis?
A: I played on “Kentucky Rain.” Eddie Rabbit wrote that song and I didn’t know I’d be running into him again when I got into country. Elvis said he wanted me to play on it. He asked me to sing some high harmonies on top of him toward the end of the record. He also said, “More thunder on the piano, Milsap.” I knew what he meant.
I ran into him on New Year’s Eve when 1970 turned 1971. He was at a place where I would normally play six nights a week. He decided to spend New Year’s Eve with us. He was the voice of my generation, Jeff. Having a chance to sit and talk with him like I’m doing with you right now was a really thrilling thing for me.
He told me he liked my singing on his record and I told him I appreciated that. Early on, I loved the stuff he did on Sun with Scotty Moore.
Q: You were one of the rare artists to have massive crossover hits with pop and country radio. Did you ever think you were losing your identity as a country singer during those days?
A: I knew when I came to Nashville and I was fortunate enough to have the job and Jack Johnson, who was Charley Pride’s manager said he wanted to manage me. I went over and he said, “Ronnie, I want you to know that I can’t make you a star — you’ll have to do that.” And I said, “Well damn, Jack, why did I sign this contract?” Johnson got me the deal on RCA and I knew that if I was going to be singing country music, I was OK with it because I’m from the Smoky Mountains and I had been around that music all of my life. I thought, “This is fun.”
The other music I had been making, you had to sing real loud. I noticed when I got into country music that you could back it down a bit. I was fortunate to be working with Tom Collins, a great producer, at that time, who was running Charley Pride’s publishing company. He had songs and he had people that would write songs especially for me. I was sitting in there with John Schweers one day and he jumped up and said, “I’m going to write you a song.” And he came back and played me “Daydreams About Night Things.” I said, “You know, I’m going to record that the next time I make a record.”
I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. It feels like it was ordained that way, that it was written in the stars.
Q: Tell me about the influence that your friend Ray Charles had on your life and career.
A: He certainly did. I was at a school for the blind in Raleigh and I told my counselor that I wanted to become a professional musician. I told them I wanted to take my 13 years of studying classical music and become a professional piano player and they said, “We don’t think that sounds very good.”
I flew down to Atlanta to a Ray Charles concert. His pilot let me in the dressing room. I was sitting there playing Ray’s piano when he walked in. I told him, “Mr. Ray Charles, you are truly the high priest. I have all of your records. I love your music. I would like your advice on how I could become a professional musician. He said, “Son, you’ve got to get in the middle of it and soak it up like a sponge and you ought to become a professional musician.” I went back to Raleigh and said, “Ray Charles said it’s OK if I become a professional musician.” And they didn’t like that.
I finally worked my way to Nashville and I ended up playing shows with Ray Charles. We played with our backs touching one another. He would say, “Do it, Ronald.” They always called me Ronald instead of Ronnie.
I kind of wish that I had the chance to record some more with Ray. Ray always did the right thing. I played my last show with him in Houston. I told my wife that he seemed fragile and wasn’t well. He told me that we should play some shows together in Las Vegas. He passed before we could make that happen. He was a class guy.
If you go
IP Casino Resort at 850 Bayview Ave. in Biloxi
8 p.m. on Friday, August 4, 2017
Tickets start at $25 and are available at Ticketmaster.com.