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No country singer had as smooth a touch as Ronnie Milsap. Blending country and soul so elegantly it could often appeal to a pop audience — and it did: “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me” went all the way to number five on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1981 — Milsap also had deep roots in soul. Long before he was a fixture on the country charts — during his prime, he racked up 35 number one hits — Milsap cracked the R&B charts with a version of Ashford & Simpson‘s “Never Had It So Good,” and that familiarity with rhythm & blues was apparent throughout his work. Nevertheless, his strength lay in taking it easy, a quality evident on “Pure Love,” his breakthrough number one in 1974. Arriving just after Charlie Rich brought a similar country-soul synthesis into the upper reaches of the charts, “Pure Love” rocketed to number one on Billboard’s country charts, followed to that position by “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” — a one-two punch that turned the singer into a star. Milsap sustained that stardom for nearly two decades, remaining a fixture in the charts by subtly, slyly adapting to the times: he borrowed some of the urbane slickness of Urban Cowboy at the dawn of the ’80s and happily made videos during the peak of MTV. As he entered his mature phase, he capitalized on a nostalgic streak, remaking rock & roll chestnuts in the mid-’80s, thereby setting himself up to ease into the oldies circuit once the hits dried up in the early ’90s. Despite relying on his old hits, Milsap never entirely stopped recording, resurfacing every decade or so for a splashy comeback along the lines of 2006’s My Life, and earning an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
Ronnie Milsap was born in Robbinsville, North Carolina on January 16, 1943. Due to congenital glaucoma, he was born nearly blind. His mother took this as a sign that God was punishing her for sins, so she left her son behind to be raised by his grandparents. When he was five, Milsap was sent to Raleigh’s Governor Morehead School for the Blind, and that is where he discovered a deep love of music, cultivated by close listening to radio broadcasts. Encouraged by his teachers, Milsap began studying classical music, and while he learned several instruments, he gravitated toward piano. Already a fan of country and R&B, he became obsessed with rock & roll once it hit in 1965. Soon, he was playing in a teenage rock & roll outfit called the Apparitions, which kept him busy until he headed to Georgia’s Young Harris College on a full scholarship.
Milsap didn’t complete his pre-law program — music drew him to the clubs instead. After a spell playing with the Atlanta-based R&B combo the Dimensions, during which time he released the single “Total Disaster” on Princess Records in 1963, Milsap was hired as the keyboardist for J.J. Cale‘s touring band. In 1965, he signed with Scepter Records, who put out “Never Had It So Good” that year. Co-written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, “Never Had It So Good” became Milsap’s first charting hit, reaching 19 on Billboard’s R&B chart; its flip, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” — also written by Ashford & Simpson — was soon popularized by Ray Charles. Milsap stayed with Scepter through 1968, releasing a total of six singles, but none of them came close to replicating the impact of his debut 45 for the label.
As his Scepter contract drew to a close, Milsap moved to Memphis, Tennessee in the late ’60s, where he struck up a relationship with producer Chips Moman. Hired as part of Moman’s house band, he appeared on several hits, including Elvis Presley‘s 1970 smash “Kentucky Rain” while also working on his recording career. Moman issued two Milsap singles on his Chips imprint in 1970 — “Loving You Is a Natural Thing” and “A Rose By Any Other Name” — but neither made waves. Warner signed Milsap in 1971, releasing the full-length, Dan Penn-produced Ronnie Milsap that year. While it hinted at the sound that would later take the singer to stardom, it didn’t gain an audience.
After moving to Nashville, Milsap happened to meet Charley Pride, who encouraged the pianist to target a country audience and put him in touch with his manager, Jack D. Johnson. In 1973, Milsap signed to Warner, which rushed the single “I Hate You” out into the marketplace. “I Hate You” did well, reaching ten on Billboard’s Country Chart, but in 1974 he became a star, thanks to the twin number ones “Pure Love” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.” So strong was this start that the Country Music Association named him Male Vocalist of the Year for 1974 while taking home the 1975 Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.”
The Country Music Association would name Milsap Male Vocalist of the Year in 1976 and 1977, a sign of his runaway popularity in the late ’70s. Between 1974’s “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time” and 1979’s “Nobody Likes Sad Songs,” he hit the top of the Billboard country charts ten times, with “Daydreams About Night Things” (1975), “(I’m A) Stand By My Woman Man” (1976), “It Was Almost Like a Song” (1977), and “Only One Love in My Life” (1978) spending multiple weeks in the pole position. “It Was Almost Like a Song” became his first single to crack the pop Top 40, climbing all the way to number 16 while reaching seven on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was a harbinger of what was to come in the first half of the ’80s.
During the early ’80s, Milsap subtly adopted some Urban Cowboy and soft rock production techniques, a move that consolidated his position in the Top 10 in both the country and adult contemporary charts. Beginning with 1980’s “Why Don’t You Spend the Night,” Milsap dominated the top position on Billboard’s country charts, reaching number one 13 times between 1980 and 1984. One of the rare times he missed the top slot was with 1983’s “Stranger in My House,” a song that went to eight on the Adult Contemporary chart and peaked at 23 on Billboard’s Top 40. It arrived after a streak when Milsap was crossing over into the pop charts with regularity, beginning with 1980’s “Smoky Mountain Rain,” which went to 24 pop and number one AC. The following year brought “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” his biggest pop hit: it reached number five on the Hot 100, number two on Adult Contemporary. The next two years were his most successful as a crossover act, thanks to the hits “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World” (1981), “Any Day Now” (1982),” “He Got You” (1982), and “Don’t Know How Much I Love You” (1983).” This hot streak led the Academy of Country Music to named Milsap their Top Male Vocalist in 1982.
Milsap maintained his strength on Billboard’s country charts during the second half of the ’80s, scoring another ten number one hits between 1985 and 1989, including the Kenny Rogers duet “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” which took home the Best Country Vocal Performance Duet Grammy in 1987. Only two of these managed to be major Adult Contemporary hits, though, and both were heavily nostalgic: the oldies ode “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night”) went to eight in 1985 — and “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby,” a cover of a ’50s chestnut by the Tune Weavers. As the ’90s began, Milsap remained a reliable hitmaker, reaching the Billboard Country Top 10 another four times in 1990 and 1991, but country radio began to embrace the new generation spearheaded by Garth Brooks around the time Milsap left his longtime home of RCA for Liberty. “True Believer,” the title song of his 1993 debut for Liberty, proved to be his last Top 40 hit, peaking at 30.
Liberty released only one album from Milsap before he left for Capitol Nashville. There, he re-recorded his hits as Sings His Best Hits for Capitol Records in 1996. For the next few years, Milsap worked on the oldies circuit, finally making his return to the studio with the Image Entertainment-released Just for a Thrill, a collection of standards, in 2004. He returned to RCA in 2006 for My Life, an album designed as comeback to the country mainstream; it reached 46 on Billboard’s Album Charts, his first placement there since 1991. Three years later, Milsap delivered Then Sings My Soul, his first collection of gospel and inspirational material; it peaked at 19 on the Country charts and eight on the Christian charts. Bigger Picture released Country Again in 2011, but his next heavily promoted release was Summer Number Seventeen, a collection of oldies covers which appeared on Sony/Legacy in 2014. Following Gospel Greats in 2016, Milsap released The Duets, a 2018 collection that paired him with old friends like Willie Nelson and new stars like Kacey Musgraves.
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