Ronnie Milsap, the Country Music Hall of Famer who boasted country’s first MTV video, myriad crossover hits and a long relationship with mentor Ray Charles, realizes a great dream today: induction into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Following the icon’s breakout in rhythm & blues, charting a Top 5 hit with Ashford & Simpson’s “Never Had It So Good” and playing the Howard and Apollo Theaters as a blind white kid everyone believed was Black, Milsap followed his dream to Memphis where he did studio work for the legendary Chips Moman and held down a gig at TJ’s, the most happening Memphis nightclub of the late ‘6os.
“Those years in Memphis were magical,” Milsap recalls. “There was music in the air. Everywhere you went, you could feel the rhythms, the rock & roll, the rhythm & blues – and the idea that there was something happening that started with Sun Records, with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and especially Elvis. We were all carrying that energy with us. It was electric, and it was alive.”
Presley provided some of the musician’s first massive exposure. Not only did the versatile keyboard player work on Elvis’ #6-peaking return to the charts after a nine-year absence with the subdued yet dramatic “Don’t Cry Daddy,” written by another future Hall of Famer Mac Davis, but the dynamic million-selling “Kentucky Rain,” written by Eddie Rabbitt.
“Elvis has a real sense about him,” Milsap relates with a laugh. “When we were in there at American Sound, he kept saying, ‘More THUNDER on the keys, Milsap! More thunder!’ Nobody wants to be the one who overwhelms a track, but he was so clear about what he heard. All I wanted to do was give it to him – and Chips – because you knew this song was something really special.”
Presley’s interest in the keyboard player, who would ultimately go to Los Angeles chasing a job with J.J. Cale – who opted out of hiring the charismatic keyboardist who was then offered a life-changing two-week stint at the Whiskey A-Go-Go on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, would provide cherished memories and a sense that his gift would find its place in the world.
“Elvis would sometimes come to TJ’s, which was the swingiest place in the late ‘60s, just to hang out when we were playing. When he showed up, everything took on a whole other level of exciting, and you could feel him really locking into the music and having fun. He would book us for his New Year’s Eve parties, and we’d be playing. One year, he even kissed my wife Joycee to ring in the new year, which was wild. Those kinds of times really set you up to chase something there’s no map for. It’s fuel in the tank when you need it most.”
Milsap joins fellow inductees Priscilla Presley, soul/gospel great Mavis Staples, producer/bandleader Booker T. Jones (Booker T & the MGs), Sun Records rockabilly icon Billy Lee Riley, Grammy-winning producer/engineer Jim Gaines, blues and jazz guitarist/educator Fred Ford and singer/producer and drummer J. M. Van Eaton, known for his work with Jerry Lee Lewis and Sun Records. These inductees bring the total to 90 members, including Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, Three 6 Mafia, Al Green, Furry Lewis, Charlie Rich, Big Star, Justin Timberlake, Roy Orbison, Sam & Dave, Sam Phillips, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, Elvis, Cash, Perkins and Lewis.
“When you look at the history, this year’s inductees represent so many facets of what makes Memphis music so mighty, it’s an honor to be included,” Milsap says. “So many of them make music I listen to today, and Priscilla Presley has carried Elvis’ legacy forward with such style, it reminds you what was created there will endure and shape music long after we’re gone. To be seen as part of that humbles me.”