Born in Robinsville, N.C.; son of James Lee and Grace (Calhoun) Milsap; married Frances Joyce Reeves, October 30, 1965; children: Ronald Todd. Education: Young-Harris Junior College, A.A., 1964. Addresses: Office-- 12 Music Circle S., Nashville, Tenn. 37203.
Ronnie Milsap is a perennial favorite among the country stars centered in Nashville. Born blind and poor in the Smoky Mountain region, Milsap learned to make music as a youngster. He decided in 1973 to concentrate on country tunes after having played rhythm and blues, classical, and even rock and roll. Since then, to quote Los Angeles Times contributor Thomas K. Arnold, Milsap has been "to country music what Stevie Wonder is to pop. They're both prodigious hit-makers, they're both considered legends in their respective genres and they're both blind." Arnold adds that "virtually everything [Milsap has] recorded has turned to gold."
Milsap's blindness is a result of congenital glaucoma, a condition that rendered him sightless at birth. The performer has candidly admitted that had he not been blind, he might never have become a musician at all. He told People: "I was sent to a special school where my training was excellent. If I hadn't been blind, I would probably still be in the backwoods of North Carolina working in a sawmill." Milsap was indeed born in the "backwoods"--in Robinsville, a tiny farming community near the Tennessee border. He was turned over to his grandparents to raise, and they in turn sent him, at age five, to the State School for the Blind in Raleigh.
The school was four hundred miles from his home, but rather than languishing in homesickness, Milsap prospered in the educational environment. He learned to play the violin from a sensitive teacher whom Milsap described as "a consummate musician and a philosopher who could communicate with a bewildered child." Milsap was given a thorough grounding in classical music, and, in addition to the violin, he learned to play keyboards, woodwinds, and the guitar. He also experimented with a number of different musical styles, forming a rock band with several other blind students and playing rhythm and blues and jazz.
Milsap attended Young-Harris Junior College in Atlanta, studying pre-law and earning honor-roll grades. He was offered a full scholarship to Emory University, but he decided to pursue professional musicianship instead. In 1965 he formed his own band and supported himself by doing sideman work for blues artist J. J. Cale. By 1969 his band had a regular gig at T.J.'s, a Memphis club. They played all sorts of music--country, rock, jazz, blues, and pop--and in 1970 they recorded a hit single, "Loving You Is a Natural Thing." Gradually Milsap realized that his talent lay primarily in country music. In 1973 he moved his family to Nashville, signed with RCA Records, and quickly became a celebrity with the chart-topping singles "I Hate You," "Pure Love," and "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends."
According to Melvin Shestack in The Country Music Encyclopedia, Milsap was considered "Nashville's 'own' performer" after he began a regular engagement at Roger Miller's King of the Road motel. Milsap's albums sold well, and his personal appearances were met with enthusiastic ovations. In 1974 he earned the first of many awards from the prestigious Country Music Association--"best male vocalist of the year." He was named "entertainer of the year," the CMA's highest honor, in 1977. People magazine correspondent Dolly Carlisle suggests that determination opened doors for Milsap, but his talent and his memorable songs kept the door open. Milsap's "rich emotive tenor and mellow lyrics" have suggested "a Smoky Mountain Manilow," Carlisle writes.
Many country artists seek the elusive "crossover" hit--the song that will top the pop and country charts. Milsap scored on this front with "Smoky Mountain Rain," a dramatic heartbreak song released in 1981. He has also made the pop charts with the singles "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me" and "Any Day Now." Milsap does not strive for the pop sound, however. He told Shestack that he remains true to the genre of his region. "The only music I heard for the first six years of my life was country," he said. "It's hard to get away from those early influences. I have played, and can play, any kind of music, but you must do what your heart feels is right, and to me that's country."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Ronnie Milsap's Career
Singer, pianist, bandleader, 1965--. Signed with Scepter Records, c. 1967; cut first single, "Never Had It So Good." Worked as opening act for rhythm and blues artists J. J. Cale, Bobby Bland, and the Miracles. Moved to Nashville, 1973; signed with RCA Records; had first number one single, "I Hate You," 1973.
Ronnie Milsap's Awards
Named male vocalist of the year by the Country Music Association, 1974, 1976, and 1977; album of the year awards from Country Music Association, 1975, 1977, and 1978; named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association, 1977; Grammy Awards 1986, for Lost in the Fifties Tonight, and 1987 (with Kenny Rogers) for best country vocal duet.
- Selective Works
- (All Together Now) Let's Fall Apart RCA, 1973.
- Pure Love RCA, 1974.
- A Legend in My Time RCA, 1975.
- 20/20 Vision RCA.
- Where My Heart Is RCA.
- A Rose by Any Other Warner Bros.
- Night Things RCA.
- Ronnie Milsap Live RCA.
- Vocalist of the Year Crazy Cajun.
- Mr. Mailman DJM.
- Inside Ronnie Milsap RCA.
- It Was Almost Like a Song RCA.
- One More Try for Love RCA.
- There's No Gettin' Over Me RCA.
- Ronnie Milsap's Greatest Hits RCA.
- Keyed Up RCA, 1985.
- Ronnie Milsap's Greatest Hits, Volume 2 RCA, 1985.
- Back on My Mind Again RCA, 1986.
- Believe It! RCA, 1986.
- Christmas with Ronnie Milsap RCA, 1986.
- Collector's Series RCA, 1986.
- Lost in the Fifties Tonight RCA, 1986.
- Heart and Soul RCA, 1987.
July 20, 2004: Milsap's album, Just for a Thrill, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_3/index.jsp, August 5, 2004.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony Books, 1977.
- Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
- Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1989.
- People, April 28, 1980.