Ronnie Lee Milsap (born January 16, 1943) is an American country music singer and pianist. He was one of country music’s most popular and influential performers of the 1970s and 1980s. He became country music’s first successful blind singer, and one of the most successful and versatile country “crossover” singers of his time, appealing to both country and pop music music markets with hit songs that incorporated pop, R&B, and rock and roll elements. His biggest crossover hits include “It Was Almost Like a Song”, “Smoky Mountain Rain”, “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”, “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World”, “Any Day Now”, and “Stranger in My House”. He is credited with six Grammy Awards and forty No. 1 country hits, third to George Strait and Conway Twitty. He was selected for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
Early life (1943 -1971)
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Milsap was born January 16, 1943, in Robbinsville, North Carolina. A congenital disorder left him almost completely blind. Abandoned by his mother as an infant, he was raised by his grandparents in the Smoky Mountains until the age of five, when he was sent to the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. During his childhood he lost his remaining vision, and both his eyes were eventually removed. Throughout his childhood, he was interested in music—particularly the late-night broadcasts of country music, gospel music, and rhythm and blues. In concert, he has often paid tribute to the artists who have inspired him the most including Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
When he was seven years old, his instructors began to notice his musical talents. Soon afterward he began studying classical music formally and learned several instruments, eventually mastering the piano. Within the next few years he also developed a passion for rock and roll music and formed a rock band with classmates in high school, The Apparitions. Milsap was awarded a full college scholarship and briefly attended Young Harris College in Young Harris, GA, until leaving to pursue a full-time career in music. In the early 1960s, he auditioned for and played his first professional gigs as a member of J.J. Cale’s band.
Milsap released his first single, “Total Disaster”, in 1963 which enjoyed some local success in the Atlanta area. In 1965, Milsap signed with New York-based Scepter Records, recording eight obscure singles for the label and working briefly with other soul musicians like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown. Also in 1965, Milsap had Top 20 success with the Ashford & Simpson-penned single, “Never Had It So Good”, which peaked at No. 19 on the R&B chart. It would be his only successful single during his time with Scepter. Another Ashford & Simpson tune named “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, was relegated to a B-side. A few months later, however, it became a million-selling single for Ray Charles. About this same time, Milsap met Joyce Reeves at a dinner party, and the two were married in 1965.
A few years later, after moving to Memphis, Tennessee, he worked for producer Chips Moman while performing weekly at the popular Memphis nightclub T.J.’s. During this time, Milsap worked as a session musician on numerous projects including two songs with Elvis Presley: “Don’t Cry Daddy” in 1969 and “Kentucky Rain” in 1970. That same year, Milsap had a minor success on the pop charts with the single “Loving You Is a Natural Thing”. He recorded and released his debut album, Ronnie Milsap, on Warner Brothers in 1971. Milsap’s R&B recordings from this period are so obscure that all but the most diehard Milsap fans remain largely unaware of them.
Breakthrough success (1973-1975)
From 1976 to 1978, Milsap became one of country music’s biggest stars. He scored seven No. 1 singles in a row, including the Grammy-winning “(I’m a) Stand By My Woman Man” and “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life”. The most significant of this series was “It Was Almost Like a Song” in 1977, a dramatic piano-based song that showcased his soaring vocal range and became his most successful single of the 1970s. In addition to topping the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, the song was his first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 pop music chart since “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” reached No. 95; “It Was Almost Like a Song,” however, reached No. 16. It was also his first song to make the Adult Contemporary Chart, stopping at No. 7. Despite its success, the song was Milsap’s only crossover success of the 1970s. Milsap continued to achieve hits on the country music charts for the remainder of the 1970s.
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