More thunder on the piano — Ronnie Milsap relives Memphis days with Elvis Presley
Ronnie Milsap auspiciously bridged the gap between country and pop in the early ’80s, and his influence still permeates contemporary country music radio. In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview, Milsap, the dictionary definition of a crossover phenomenon, recalls meeting boyhood idol Elvis Presley and ultimately getting to play on the King of Rock and Roll’s heralded 1969 comeback sessions at American Sound Studios in Memphis.
Then a struggling Motown-minded musician who had uprooted his family from their Atlanta home at the instigation of American Sound producer Chips Moman, Milsap was determined to make a name for himself in the bustling melting pot of Memphis. For four years, his strategy paid off considerably.
Steady session work at American Sound, a nightly gig at the trendy T.J.’s nightclub, and eye-popping encounters with music legends like John Fogerty and Isaac Hayes planted the seeds for the blind pianist’s future stardom.
Fifty-three Top 40 country singles and 27 studio albums later, the gifted keyboard maestro shows no signs of slowing down, as he continues to record new material and tour whenever the mood strikes him.
Stick around as Milsap revisits his colorful Memphis past. Cutting “Kentucky Rain” with Presley, playing two invitation-only New Year’s Eve parties at T.J.’s, why he left the city for Nashville on the day after Christmas 1972, how he learned about Presley’s shocking death, and a dilapidated World War II-era plane that nearly cost him his life merely scratch the surface.
The Ronnie Milsap Interview
You were originally scheduled to be interviewed at the 2013 Graceland-sanctioned Official Elvis Insiders Event during Elvis Week in Memphis but plans fell through. What happened?
Almost as soon as we got it scheduled, another date came in that paid us more. My manager said, “They’re gonna offer you $50,000 if you’ll go to Charenton, Louisiana, and play this show at the Pavilion at Cypress Bayou Casino.” So what are you gonna do, man? The band wants to work, and I wanna work. I hate that we had to move my Elvis Week appearance again, but I guess we had to.
I really look forward to coming to Memphis and having a chance to do something one year — perhaps a full concert — during Elvis Week. I love Elvis, and I love that whole thing with Memphis.
When did you become an Elvis fan?
I was an original Elvis fan. He was the voice of my generation. I was listening to him on the radio when he released his great Sun records with Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on bass. I enjoyed him even more once Colonel Parker got him the deal with RCA. The records he made in Nashville with the Jordanaires were just incredible.
How did you come to play piano and sing harmonies on Elvis’s comeback sessions at American Sound Studios in Memphis?
Well, I was living in Atlanta when I had my first mini hit in 1965, a Top 20 R&B ballad written by Ashford & Simpson called “Never Had It So Good.” Incidentally, it was my first record for Scepter Records, and audiences seeing me open for Sam & Dave and James Brown were probably shocked to discover that I was white [laughs].
Two years later Scepter asked me to record my next single at American with producer Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys [Gene Chrisman on drums, Reggie Young on guitar, Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech on bass, Bobby Emmons on organ, and Bobby Wood supplying piano]. I thought it was a great idea, and that session helped me get my foot in the door.
I soon got a residency at the prestigious Playboy Club in Atlanta, where I was working an unbelievable six hours a night, six nights a week. Anyway, Chips showed up one night. He was pleased with our previous session and urged me to move to Memphis.
He told me that he would get me session work at American, introduce me to music industry bigwigs, produce my next hit, and land me a job at T.J.’s, a very busy nightclub owned by Jewish businessman Herbie O’Mell. Everything came true except for the hit record. Tommy Cogbill, who I admired very much, also talked to me, and I was finally convinced to make the move in November 1968 with my wife, Joyce.
Elvis came in one night while I was playing at T.J.’s. During a break in the music, a friend introduced us by saying, ‘This is Ronnie Milsap.” Elvis replied, “Okay.” That was it — no ‘how are you’, mumble or even grunt.
In January and February 1969 Elvis booked time at American in order to rejuvenate his sagging recording career. True to his word, Chips recommended that I play on Elvis’s session. In addition, he said there was a possibility that Elvis might want me to sing.
The first day I went down to the studio, Elvis cut future country pop star Eddie Rabbitt’s “Kentucky Rain”, which became a million-selling record. While we were recording it, Elvis kept saying, “More thunder on the piano, Milsap” [laughs]. You can also hear me on the high vocal harmony part.
A decade later I recorded “Smoky Mountain Rain”, written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan. We paid tribute to “Kentucky Rain” by incorporating the same sound of thunder that Elvis used. “Smoky Mountain Rain” became a huge hit for me [No. 24 Pop, No. 1 C&W], and it’s one of my most requested songs. Tennessee recently made it one of their official state songs. I truly learned how to make records by working at American.
All these years later, it’s difficult to remember everything I contributed to with Elvis, but I do recall playing and / or singing on John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Mac Davis’s “Don’t Cry Daddy.” Some of my parts were added at later overdub sessions where Elvis was not present.
Did Elvis personally ask you to play two shows for him?
I still can’t quite believe that’s true, but he did. While I was playing at T.J.’s sometime after Elvis’s American sessions, he requested that I perform at a special New Year’s Eve party he was throwing for his entourage at T.J.’s. The club was closed to the public, and guards enforced his guest list.
Elvis came over and talked about how much he loved “Kentucky Rain” and how he appreciated me playing on it. I got to sit and talk with him, kinda like we’re doing now. That was a dream come true. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d ever get to sit and talk with Elvis. I was just a big fan who loved him so much.
Later that night I made the mistake of inviting him up onstage. “Hey, Elvis, I sure would like to play for you if you’d come up and sing a song? How about ‘All Shook Up?’”, I excitedly inquired. My request definitely freaked him out. It was his private party, and he just wanted to enjoy the fellowship of his friends without putting on a show.
The last time I saw Elvis was when I played my second New Year’s Eve show for him in 1970. Fortunately, I was wise enough not to ask him to sing. One story that sticks out in my memory was listening to one of my buddies talk about seeing Elvis going to the men’s room escorted by four bodyguards — one in front, one in back, and one on each side.
It seemed peculiar to me — since it was a private party — so I asked Memphis Mafia member Alan Fortas why Elvis did that. Alan’s answer floored me. “That’s where he gets hit up, man”, Alan readily admitted. Fans knew Elvis was extremely generous and hated to let people down, and they would corner him and say stuff like ‘My mother is having an operation and I don’t know how I’ll pay for it.’ I thought it was kinda sad that a man couldn’t even visit the men’s room without being hounded.
Elvis enjoyed himself very much at T.J.’s, but I thought he was acting a little strange. This would have been several weeks after his legendary trip to the White House to visit President Nixon and receive his federal narcotics agent badge [Author’s Note: Presley and members of the Memphis Mafia returned to Washington on December 30 to visit the headquarters of the National Sheriffs Association as well as the FBI Headquarters. A proposed meeting with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover failed to materialize, so the entertainer flew straight to Memphis just in time for the New Year’s Eve party].
Elvis was carrying two loaded six guns inside cowboy holsters strapped around his waist. He also had one of those five-cell flashlights. He went around holding it in front of everyone’s eyes until they were blinded. And yes, he did it to me, too. Once it was midnight, Elvis walked around to every table, planting a big Happy New Year kiss on each woman’s cheek. Joyce was thrilled for days [laughs].
Who were some of the other famous musicians that you got to meet at T.J.’s?
For some reason, T.J.’s always attracted a lot of artists. We had a permanent gig there, six nights a week. Most any night you’d think, ‘Who’s gonna show up tonight?’ I’d walk in and someone would tell me, “Isaac Hayes is here, and he wants to see you.” “Sounds good.” “Hey, Mr. Isaac Hayes, how you doing?”
I remember Isaac saying, “I want you to show me something onstage. You’re using this thing called an Echoplex where you can go, ‘hello, hello hello…’” It was a great little device that repeated your vocals. Anyway, I showed him where it was and how to use it. I later went to see him play somewhere, and he used that Echoplex just like I did.
It became a fun game between my band members and I. “Okay, who all’s in here tonight?” “There’s a guy here that wants to see you. His name is Mike Post.” So I talked with Mike Post. He turned out to be one of the biggest people in television out on the West Coast.
Mike composed the theme music for all kinds of big television shows — especially police dramas like L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, and Law and Order. He contributed to the audio and visual aspects of my 1980s concerts with show-stopping dance routines. We remain close friends.
One night a buddy told me, “There’s a guy over here that wants you to have a drink with him. His name is John Fogerty.” I must have said, “Lord, have mercy!” Creedence Clearwater Revival had recently put out a monster record called “Run Through the Jungle”, and I was intrigued by the layers of certain sounds on that song. I couldn’t figure out how it was done until Fogerty graciously explained the technical process to me. Leon Russell, B.J. Thomas, and Dionne Warwick dropped by, too.
I met all these famous people at T.J.’s. It just seemed like as soon as people got off or visited Memphis, they wanted to know a place to go for night spots. And they always came to T.J.’s to hear me. It was a great place to be.
As far as I know, no tapes exist from my years at T.J.’s. I wish they did. Believe it or not, I used to perform a 40-minute version of Roy Orbison’s “The Cat Was a Junkie.” It was a medium-tempo rock ’n’ roll number about a guy who didn’t know his friend was a drug addict. I’d do that thing, incorporate a passionate narration in the middle, and it would take up my whole set. I got “fired” numerous times by King of the Road manager Don Davis when I later played the song in Nashville. He hated it [laughs].
Why did you leave Memphis?
Chips had produced “Loving You’s a Natural Thing” for me in 1970 on his record label, Chips Records. I love that song, but it was our only collaboration to barely scrape into the Top 100 [No. 87]. Mark James, who wrote five singles for Elvis including “Suspicious Minds,” “Always on My Mind,” and “Moody Blue,” composed it along with disc jockey George Klein.
I often thought that if I had been working with Mark James at American Studios, I would have had a pop hit before I ever moved out of Memphis. But that didn’t happen. I had to get to Nashville in order to start having some hits. Chips wanted to produce the hit on me, and he rarely allowed anybody else to even try.
Chips’ enthusiasm for me, my talents, and his record label seemed to wane. He told me didn’t know what else he could do to accelerate my career, even after all the recording sessions and personal appearances he had arranged for me. Chips stopped coming around his own studio. He did give me permission to record my first album — 1971’s self-titled Ronnie Milsap — with producer Dan Penn for Warner Brothers to little commercial success.
The day after Christmas 1972 Joyce and I made the difficult decision to move to Nashville and begin a residency at Roger Miller’s King of the Road hotel. I considered it my last chance to make it in music. I could never have gone to Nashville if I had not had that waiting engagement.
Once we started making the country records, they sold, and royalty checks started coming my way. I was able to take care of my family, which grew to include our son, Todd. It’s always been a challenge to take care of your family, but thank God I’ve always been able to. I have so many fond memories of Memphis — I could write an entire book about my time there.
Did you receive any contact from Elvis once you were in Nashville?
In 1973, I was playing at the King of the Road. While catching my breath in-between sets, a waitress tapped me on the shoulder and said that Elvis Presley was on the phone. Elvis had, on occasion, invited me to his private parties, but those invitations always came indirectly through Red West or Alan Fortas. My schedule was so hectic that I always had to decline.
Anyway, I picked up the phone, and it was Elvis. Sadly, I couldn’t leave my gig, so I had to tell him no again. He didn’t argue, and if he was disappointed, he wasn’t nearly as disappointed as I was. That quick phone call became my last contact with Elvis. In less than four years he would be dead.
Where were you when Elvis suddenly passed away?
I was on a DC-3 — a loud, old plane flown during World War II — in flight to Hilton Head, South Carolina. We were booked at a national convention for Record Bar, a chain of retail record stores. RCA, who signed me in 1973, financed the trip for my band, family, and some RCA executives. Incidentally, Elvis was on RCA, too.
Joyce was deathly afraid of flying, and I didn’t care for it much, either. Once she was finally convinced to enter the plane, everything went well for awhile until we got over the Blue Ridge Mountains. We flew smack into an awful thunderstorm. We were told that the DC-3 could not fly high enough to go over the turbulence, so we went right through it.
Man, it was a terrible flight. Joyce was crying, and I was trying to lighten the mood by yelling jubilantly every time the plane went up and down. Joyce and a friend of mine soon noticed oil spewing from the right engine. When a band member notified the cockpit, they couldn’t believe that the pilot was sitting on top of two telephone books. He was too short to reach the controls. I felt certain we were going to die in a mountainside crash and wind up in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons.
Thankfully, the plane landed safely. I remember walking off the plane, and Joe Galante, who was the president of RCA Nashville at that time, took my hand and said, “Ronnie, Elvis just died.” I said, “Wow, what?” “Yeah, Elvis is dead.” In a daze, all I could muster was an “Oh no.”
What astonished me was sitting and listening to the sales people from RCA talk. They couldn’t believe how big their bonus checks were gonna be by Christmas. Now that Elvis was dead, they knew they were going to sell a whole lot of Elvis records, and they did. I thought, ‘You know, that’s really not right’, but I know that’s just the way it goes in show business. They’d say the same thing about me, Otis Redding, or anybody else.
Somehow we managed to put on a good show that evening — we received a standing ovation — but Elvis was certainly on all of our minds. My family and I flew back to Nashville on a commercial airline, but the band opted to stay in the DC-3. Once it took off from Hilton Head and got over the Atlantic Ocean, the engine that had been leaking oil went out completely. Thank God that crippled plane was able to return to the airfield without further incident. I can only hope that it was put out of commission [Author’s Note: In a bitter ironic twist, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Rick Nelson perished in a DC-3, previously owned by Jerry Lee Lewis, on New Year’s Eve 1985].
Elvis was always nice to me, and I know firsthand that he was even nicer to others. His feats were then, and are now, unsurpassed in all of entertainment history. He left us recorded songs that became standards, and he left us a memory that became a legacy. He was the greatest.
*******************DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET!*******************
Exclusive Interview: Grammy-winning artist B.J. Thomas sat down with yours truly for an extended conversation about his decades-long relationship with Memphis. Entitled “Back When Memphis Was Electric,” the wide-ranging interview finds the legendary singer revealing what it was like to sing with Elvis Presley during a New Year’s Eve 1968 party at the Thunderbird Lounge, revisiting his friendship with songwriter Mark James and the vastly underrated Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys, and the tantalizing story behind (“Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Marshall Terrill has written three captivating Elvis Presley tomes with close friends and a ravishing former flame of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Terrill readily admits, “I’ve always tried to approach the Elvis story from an outsider’s perspective with a lot of common sense and no excuses. Many people in the Elvis World come to the subject matter with their minds made up, lines drawn in the sand, and have pegged everyone as either a hero or villain.” In “Gauging Elvis Presley’s Shakespearean Destiny from an Outsider’s Perspective,” the celebrity biographer scrutinizes how Elvis’ inspired performances often hinged on his level of instrumental commitment, why the artist didn’t compose more material, how lifestyle choices gradually diminished his recording career, the often pointless Elvis vs. Beatles debate, and the shocking degree of entanglement degenerate gambler Colonel Tom Parker became mired in with the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel to his client’s detriment.
Further Reading: An esteemed member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s sophomore induction class, “Garden Party” singer Rick Nelson was on the verge of a mini comeback when his plane tragically caught fire en route to a 1985 New Year’s Eve gig. A rockabilly-themed album was nearing completion, and the singer had found a new record label in Nashville — Curb Records. Unfortunately, the project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights and whether Nelson’s vocals were satisfactory. The “Garden Party” songwriter’s manager, Greg McDonald, made a surprise appearance on satellite radio and gave a very encouraging lowdown on the current status of the project and whether it might see the light of day in time for the 35th anniversary of Nelson’s passing.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: In modern times the Jordanaires appeared as very special guests on hundreds of concerts headlined by natural-born raconteur and all-around Nashville entertainer Ronnie McDowell, who scored 27 Top 40 country singles between 1977 and 1990. Remember “The King Is Gone,” “Wandering Eyes,” “Older Women,” “Watchin’ Girls Go By,” “Step Back,” “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation,” “You Made a Wanted Man of Me,” and his duet with Conway Twitty on “It’s Only Make Believe?” When “The King Is Gone” sold six million copies in late 1977, McDowell had a potentially life-altering choice — should he don a jumpsuit and become another Elvis tribute artist, or should he strike out on his own merit as a country singer? In “Still Keepin’ the Fires Burning — The Wit and Wisdom of Singing Sensation Ronnie McDowell,” the consummate crooner leaves no stone unturned as he recalls a 40-year career in front of the limelight.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: Trailblazing Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis Presley. His bold efforts ultimately broke Presley north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the ’50s. The deejay also had a prominent role in the highly sought after but still lost concert film, ‘The Pied Piper of Cleveland’, which documented the first time Presley was filmed by a professional camera. To read about the King of Rock and Roll’s meteoric rise to worldwide fame, and why one prominent authority controversially believes “Mystery Train” was the singer’s last honest recording until he returned from the Army in March 1960, visit the following link: [“On the Brink of Becoming an Artistic Phenomenon…”].
Further Reading No. 2: The Pointer Sisters effortlessly blended sweet, gospel-laden harmonies on a plethora of pop nuggets during the ’70s and ’80s including “Fairytale,” “I’m So Excited,” “He’s So Shy,” and “Slow Hand.” Based on a true story about Anita Pointer’s illicit affair with a married KSAN radio deejay in San Francisco, the jilted country saga within “Fairytale” apparently connected with listeners, becoming the Pointer Sisters’ second hit. To acquire further insight on how it opened doors for the harmonically gifted quartet by securing them a spot on the illustrious Grand Ole Opry, spurred in part by a faithful Elvis Presley cover, consider investigating a newly written article exploring the matter entitled “Inside ‘Fairytale,’ the Pointer Sisters’ Defiant Country Kiss-Off Covered by Elvis.”
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