Ronnie Dawson - Big D
Ronnie Dawson may be celebrating his 60th birthday on August 11, but don't think for a minute he's slowing down. The Dallas rock 'n' roller just released More Bad Habits, a project on Yep Roc Records that contains his first stereo studio recordings in the United States since the 1960s. The set shows that the Blonde Bomber is still in top form, whether blasting away in rockabilly mode or crooning a countrified ditty.
Though Dawson may be getting up there in years, there's nothing old and tired about his energetic live shows. He cites a wholesome lifestyle and a positive outlook on life as contributing to his seemingly endless energy and stamina onstage.
"I've worked at it," he says. "You know, I've seen both sides. I've seen guys that didn't take care of themselves and they're dead. They were dead before they got out of their 30s. On the other hand, I've seen other people that took care of themselves and they were able to maintain.
"I didn't spend a whole lotta time in beer joints. I tried to adopt a healthy lifestyle. That means diet, and some kind of a workout regimen. So since the early '60s, I've been running. That's really helped not only from a physical standpoint, but from a mental and spiritual standpoint also. I run no less than three days a week when I'm home. When I'm on the road I do it when I can. I'll find the time to do it."
Dawson has a remarkable life story, one that begins amidst the thrills and excitement of the late '50s rock 'n' roll explosion. Born in Dallas in 1939, he was raised as an only child in Waxahachie (about 20 miles south of Dallas) by Pinkie and Gladys Dawson. Ronnie's dad, Pinkie, had a swing band that was heard on KRLD-AM radio. When his father discovered how much Ronnie liked music, they acquired a guitar and Ronnie learned the basics.
Soon after, Dawson formed his own band, Ronnie Dee & the D Men; within two months, they entered the talent contest at KRLD's Big D Jamboree. The Big D Jamboree was a radio show in the mode of the Grand Ole Opry that presented country stars of the day performing their hits in a live setting, while also giving exposure to up-and-coming new talent. Dawson and his band proceeded to win the contest ten weeks in a row.
"It was really a country show," he recalls. "When rock 'n' roll came in, it went that way a little bit because their crowds had started to diminish a little bit. Every once in a while, they'd change the format. They'd put up on the bulletin board backstage 'all acts must do country' and that pertained to everyone but myself. That's how we won it, that's how we got on the show and I always argued that with them. I told them, 'I don't do country.' So they would put me on at the end of the show. Mainly because we had a great rapport with the crowd, that was the only reason they didn't say, 'See ya'."
But there was also a trying time or two. He remembers one particular incident with legendary country singer Webb Pierce. "We had always heard that Webb Pierce hated rock 'n' roll," Dawson relates. "In those days it was very divided. Ernest Tubb didn't care. He loved everybody and to me, he was the real cat. He loved rock 'n' roll and he always had a good word for everybody.
"Webb Pierce came down and we were rehearsing in the rehearsal room and he sent the doorman down to tell us to please refrain from rehearsing, that it was bothering him. I told him to go back and tell whoever sent him that we have just as much right to rehearse here as he does. Pierce had already done part of his show. Most of the time those artists would come on and do the main part of the show that was broadcast on KRLD radio. Then they would come back for a run-through of everybody at the end.
"Well, I saw him walk by the door with his guitar, so he left without doing the second part of his show. It ended up that they refused to pay him. He wasn't very friendly anyway, so I kinda enjoyed doing that to him. Among the others, Hank Snow, Roy Acuff were really nice, but there were a couple of performers that weren't nice to anyone."
The result of his appearances on The Big D Jamboree was that he attracted the attention of Ed MacLemore, who at the time managed Gene Vincent. Dawson's first two singles were "Action Packed" on Backbeat Records and the now legendary "Rockin' Bones" on MacLemore's Rockin' label. Both singles sold well regionally and led to an offer from Dick Clark to record for Swan Records and appear on American Bandstand.
At that point, though, the payola scandal hit, affecting Clark and other prominent disc jockeys. Dawson explains, "Dick Clark was a smart enough guy that he didn't have any of his holdings in his name. They were all in other people's names....Dick Clark couldn't push anything on the show that was on a label that he was affiliated with, that's what they told me. After the payola investigation, there were certain labels he couldn't go near because of his affiliation with them. There was some weirdness going on, but I don't know, at the time I was nineteen, wild eyed and ready." Dawson never recorded for Swan, and his career appeared dead.
However, through his friendship with Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery, the bandleader at the Big D Jamboree, Dawson was asked to play guitar with a late incarnation of the Light Crust Doughboys, Milton Brown's pioneering western swing band that had featured Bob Wills in 1934 (Brown died in 1936). "They were mainly known as a country & western group even though they played polkas and stuff like that," he remembers. "They had a fiddle and steel guitar, and in those days if you had a fiddle you were known as a fiddle band. You were hillbilly.
"They took me along because they did a lot of schools and grocery store parking lots. They'd play a lot of schools, so I was the young attraction and man, it was great. We traveled quite bit. I didn't really appreciate getting to play with them because their history wasn't as deep then as it is now. It wasn't until later on that I really appreciated playing with those people."
Around this time, Dawson also got some work as a studio musician -- most notably, he played drums on Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby" and Paul & Paula's "Hey Paula" -- as well as releasing tracks for Columbia Records under the monikers of Snake Munroe ("It was a blues thing; my nickname was Snake because I weighed about 90 pounds, and my middle name is Munroe") and Commonwealth Jones, some of which can be found on Dawson's Rockin' Bones double-CD collection of old material and rarities.
Throughout the 1960s, Dawson performed with the Levee Singers, a vocal group that toured nationally and made TV appearances on "The Jimmy Dean Show", "Hootenany" and "The Hollywood Palace". In the 1970s, he was involved with a group called Steelrail that was apparently ahead of its time. Dawson remembers it this way: "Steelrail's idea was to put country and rock 'n' roll together. Because at that time it really hadn't been done. They started to do it on the West Coast; Rick Nelson had a band, the Stone Canyon Band, and to us it sounded like a rock 'n' roll band with a country steel player sitting in, but we wanted to take it a step further.
"We found a steel player here in Dallas by the name of Larry White, and we just based the whole band around him. He could play any kind of music and he had great imagination. To me, it was some of the best music I've ever done in my life. But it didn't come together for some reason. We never had a release."
When prompted, Dawson reveals he's working on finally getting some of Steelrail's music out, but it's been a long and tricky task. "We've been in the process, for the past couple of years, of trying to get some stuff together. I know we had quite a few things recorded. I've been able to come up with some of them. But there's a fellow that we were associated with at the time that we didn't have a very good parting with, if you know what I mean, and we were out of communication with him for a very long time. I've just relocated him in the last year.
"We're thinking if we do it, it might be called Ronnie Dawson: The Steelrail Years or something like that. I've got a company here in Dallas that's interested in releasing it, so we may have something out this year. I'm even thinking the band may get back together again to do a concert or two."
In the 1980s, Dawson was making national commercials for the likes of CiCi's Pizza, Jax Beer and Hungry Jack Pancakes, as he continues to do today. But around Christmas 1986, his career as a rockabilly artist had a surprising resurgence. British record collector Barney Koumis contacted Dawson to inform him that some of his old recordings had reached legendary status in England and had become highly sought collector's items. Koumis also was interested in any unreleased material Dawson might want to issue on Koumis' indie label, No Hit Records. Eventually Dawson traveled to England and caused a sensation, which led to No Hit releasing a series of albums: Rockin' Bones (a collection of early hits), Monkey Beat, Rockinitis and Just Rockin' And Rollin'. All were eventually made available in the U.S. on either Crystal Clear Sound or Upstart Records.
The renewed interest in his old music opened up many doors. "In 1994," he says, "I had a chance to play a folk festival at Carnegie Hall called Deep In The Heart Of Texas, and from that one gig we got a great review in The New York Times with a picture and all, and that's how we were able to start booking here [in the States].
"The next thing I knew, [Austin country singer] Ted Roddy called me and said, 'Let's do a gig.' I came down to Austin and played at the Continental Club. I did that one down there with High Noon [an Austin rockabilly band], and that started my whole association with them, which was a wonderful one. The Austin connection has been good one, from the musicians I played with to the live album I recorded there last year."
Dawson has been touring fairly extensively since 1994, establishing a bond with musicians and fans wherever he's been. He developed a strong relationship with some folks in Portland, Maine, who had built a new recording studio; Dawson ended up recording More Bad Habits there.
"I think it's good to spread this thing around and get young people involved in it too," he says. "That's part of the reason we're doing this whole thing, my wife and I. The record is dedicated to my wife because without her, I probably couldn't be doing this. She set up the business for me and takes care of it for me. She's just been great.
"But we're not doing it for the money. We're doing it to work with younger people, maybe help them get a good step up. Nearly everyone we've worked with in the past couple years has left and formed their own band. We like that. Some things were handed to me, and I feel an obligation to pass it on to people who are younger than me. That's kinda what I go by."
Jim Caligiuri lives in Austin, Texas, and believes there's no better place on earth.