Tales of Bessman: Ronnie Milsap at the Dane County Coliseum

I choked up when I saw the news that my old pal Ronnie Milsap will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I thought of the first time I met him, in the late 1970s at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin. I had just started writing around then, for The MadCity Music Sheet, mostly about country music and punk rock.

The show at the Coliseum was incredible. I held my breath with everyone else as Ronnie did this blind man shtick where he got up from his piano bench and walked out to the edge of the stage, stopping just before walking off and falling into the audience.

He did another bit where he introduced the band except for his drummer, who was black. When everyone complained—the drummer included—Ronnie apologized and said that it was so dark back there that he couldn’t see him.

I hung out with Ronnie after the show and roared with laughter as he related how he went out driving with some friends, getting behind the wheel and doing what they told him to do. He had a blast telling it.

He did a country version of “Honky Tonk Women” that night. The next time I went to Nashville—it must have been for Fan Fair—I  brought along my copy of Let It Bleed, which featured the Stones’ countrified version of the song, retitled “Country Honk.” Ronnie wasn’t aware of it, as I discovered when I presented it to him personally. But he vividly remembered meeting me at the Coliseum—and has never forgotten it all this time later.

I think this was my second trip to Nashville, after going there on a vacation from my typing job at the State of Wisconsin. It’s too long a story for now, and I may have written it up elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say that I met my Cajun country music hero Jo-El Sonnier–though it was “Joel” at that time—and when I returned to Nashville this time, I had left the State job to focus on writing.

I took the Greyhound and Jo-El and his then manager Earl Poole Ball—back then he didn’t use the “Poole”—picked me up at the station. I’d also met Earl at the Dane County Coliseum, when I saw him playing piano in Johnny Cash’s band and recognized his name from Jo-El’s publicity stills.

I slept on the floor of Earl’s 16th Avenue South Wall-to-Wall Music Publishing office. Jo-El had the fold-out couch. It was one of the grubbiest periods of my life, though not that much removed from today.

Leaving out the sleaziest parts—like me living for three days off free popcorn at a Fan Fair booth—one of the coolest was listening to Earl and Jo-El talk about music, Ronnie’s in particular.

I loved the records as a listener and fan, but Earl and Jo-El marveled at their production value, Jo-El constantly referring to it as “on top.” I didn’t know then, and don’t know now, exactly what he meant, other than that it had to be as good as it gets, and definitely the best then coming out of Nashville.

“His sense of hearing must have been so sharp that he could make such sonically super-sounding recordings,” Earl recalled yesterday. “Also, I think maybe he owned his own studio and could take his time in the mixing.”

Many years later, after I’d moved to New York, I learned that Ronnie’s initial success as a recording artist came in New York at Scepter Records, the ’60s home of The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick, Chuck Jackson and B.J. Thomas, among others. The young Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were staff writers there, and their composition “Never Had It So Good” made it to No. 19 in 1965 on the R&B chart for Ronnie, and was his biggest hit for the label.

But a Ronnie B-side, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (co-written by Nick and Val with former Ikette “Joshie” Jo Armstead), became their ticket to Motown when Ray Charles heard it, covered it, and sold a million copies of his version. When Ronnie played a rare club gig in New York in the ’90s at the Bottom Line, Nick and Val sent him a bouquet with the message, “We never had it so good!”

Incidentally, Val, and maybe Nick, likely sang backup on Ronnie’s Scepter recordings. And when I spoke with Ronnie a few weeks ago about his new album Summer Number Seventeen, the first thing he said was how he remembered meeting me at the Dane County Coliseum.

Here’s Ronnie’s version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned”:

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