All Photos: Alan Mercer
Ronnie McDowell has an amazing string of hit songs that he has amassed over the years, but it is his riveting stage presence and genuine warmth that fills the seats again and again. Like all great entertainers, Ronnie McDowell has a personality that remains luminous long after the lights go dim. These qualities have inspired a nationwide network of fan-clubs with thousands of members, each one a devoted promoter of everything McDowell does.
Following the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, Ronnie McDowell came out of nowhere to dazzle the world with his heartfelt and self-penned tribute song “The King Is Gone” on the independent Scorpion label. The record took off immediately, gaining airplay on country and pop stations across the country and around the world. To date, “The King Is Gone” has sold more than 5 Million copies.
All of a sudden, the young Vietnam Veteran from Portland, Tennessee was a star, and he quickly proved that he wasn’t just a one-trick pony. McDowell scored a second hit for the Scorpion label titled “I Love You, I Love You, I Love You” before being wooed and signed by CBS Records – Epic label in 1979.
Ronnie McDowell charted a string of hit singles and albums for Epic between 1979 and 1986. Every single release with the exception of just one became a Top 10 Hit including the chart toppers “Older Women” and “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation.” Other hits during his Epic years included “Watchin’ Girls Go By,” “Personally,” “You Made A Wanted Man Of Me,” “All Tied Up,” and “In A New York Minute.”
Ronnie toured constantly to support each album release and consequently built an astounding fan base throughout the country. He sought the advice of artists such as Conway Twitty who became, in essence, not only his mentor but his friend as well. Twitty helped the young singer with advice about touring, recording and most of all entertaining the fans.
Moving to Curb Records in 1986, his current label to date, Ronnie McDowell scored a Top 10 hit with “It’s Only Make Believe,” a duet with Conway Twitty on what was Twitty’s breakthrough hit from 1958. Two years later Ronnie teamed up with Jerry Lee Lewis for a rocking duet that McDowell wrote titled, “You’re Never Too Old To Rock N’ Roll.” He also recorded yet another Top 10 hit with his version of the pop standard “Unchained Melody,” which also became a #1 country music video. To date, Ronnie has scored over 30 top ten records. His entertaining abilities soared and he began to draw larger crowds. He started appearing in larger venues and touring with artists such as Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn before headlining his own shows.
Two of Ronnie’s most recent projects on Curb Records include an album of beach music with Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters, entitled, “Ronnie McDowell with Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters”. The second project is a new country album titled “Ronnie McDowell Country”, a collection of six new McDowell penned songs, and a few country standards by such Legendary writers as Buck Owens, Harlan Howard and Dallas Frazier.
Ronnie McDowell is still constantly in demand on the road and he tours relentlessly with his band. Additionally, he often tours with Elvis Presley’s original sideman D.J. Fontana along with Ray Walker a longtime member of The Jordanaires staging a tribute to Elvis Presley’s music. Ronnie McDowell sang 36 songs on the soundtrack “Elvis,” the Dick Clark-produced television movie that featured Kurt Russell as the performer. He also was the singing voice for the television movie “Elvis And Me”, the ABC television series about the early years of Elvis’ career titled simply “Elvis” as well as, the 1997 Showtime special “Elvis Meets Nixon.”
While Elvis Presley has played a big part in Ronnie McDowell’s musical career over the years, Ronnie continues to entertain audiences with his own blend of romantic intimacy and country excitement! He looks great, he sounds great, and judging from the longtime adoration of his fans, he seems to grow better with each passing year!
AM: Ronnie, you exploded onto the music scene when you started. What was that like?
RM: I’ll be totally honest with you. It was like literally turning your life upside down over night. I watched ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ the other night and it reminded me of when I walked into a little AM radio station with an acetate disk.
AM: I haven’t heard of an acetate for a long time.
RM: You know an acetate was a big record that you could get made for about eight bucks. You couldn’t play them too many times but it was an inexpensive way to have your song on a record. I had eight of them made the morning after I had recorded my song, ‘The King Is Gone’ unbeknownst to me at Scotty Moore’s studio.
AM: That was Elvis’s guitar player!
RM: Yes and I didn’t know that at the time. So the next morning I flew down to Nashville. I didn’t sleep at all and I held that tape in my arms all night.
AM: I bet!
RM: So I went to Monument and was sitting on the steps and here’s another irony, it was Scotty Moore’s girlfriend Gail Pollock, they’ve both passed now. They were together forty something years.
AM: That is amazing.
RM: I didn’t know that was Scotty Moore’s girlfriend! I would have freaked out if I’d known. So anyway I told her I wanted some acetates made because I thought I had a hit song. She asked me what I had and I told her it was a song about Elvis. So we made the acetates and I went to a little AM station called WENO in Madison, Tennessee.
AM: Why did you choose that station?
RM: I don’t really know, except I thought I’d have a better shot at getting the song played. So I walked in to the station and asked the secretary if they would play the record and she told they didn’t do that for someone walking in off the street. I told her it was a song about Elvis so she said, “Well hold on a minute.” She went and talked to a DJ behind some glass. I could tell he was listening to a little of it and then he pointed his finger at me and told me to come back so I went back there.
AM: You got further than most already.
RM: He told me to stand right there and he would play the record. He warned me we may not get any reaction so don’t get my hopes up. This is the God’s truth; he put that needle down on the turntable and before the song was half over, all of his phone lines were lit up.
AM: Wow! How exciting.
RM: He said something was wrong with the phones, but he would pick up each line and I’d hear him say, “OK, OK, OK.” Then he told me these people want me to play the song again right after it finishes playing the first time.
RM: The phone lines stayed lit through the whole song. By the way, that was only two blocks from Colonel Tom Parker’s house. Anyway, my original point was about Buddy Holly and how the same thing happened with his song, ’That’ll Be The Day’ at a radio station in New York. Some guy walked into the radio station and started playing that song and they had to break the door down to get him to stop. Buddy Holly and the Crickets were on tour and Buddy got a phone call telling him he had a hit record in New York.
AM: I didn’t know that.
RM: My point to all of that is that now a young boy can’t walk into a radio station and ask them to play a song. It’s not going to happen.
AM: No it’s not.
RM: It’s a different world and a different time but I’m sure glad I grew up when I did in the business. I got to work with Marty Robbins, George Jones, Hank Snow, Roy Acuff and Conway Twitty. I grew up at the perfect time in the music business.
AM: It’s so unlikely that you are this fully realized, independent artist and still have such a strong Elvis connection.
RM: There’s always a reason and a rhyme for everything. There’s even more connection. The first place I ever sang in my life was in Vietnam on an old World War II aircraft carrier. They made the stage out of the elevator that took the planes up to the flight deck. Just before I sang for the first time in my life in front of anybody I sang, ‘When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,’ an old Elvis song, but just before I walked up there, this old guy grabbed my arm and said to me, “Son I was here in 1956 when we were docked in San Diego and Elvis Presley stood right there where you are standing now. Elvis was on the Milton Berle show.
AM: This is unbelievable!
RM: That was the first time I ever sang in front of anybody and I sang an Elvis song. Now listen to this, my daughter called me not too long ago and asked me if I knew who Elvis Presley’s grandfather was and I said, “Yes I do.” There is nothing about Elvis that I don’t know. I know more about Elvis then he knew about himself. She told me to google Elvis’s grandfather and you know what his name was? Jessie D. McDowell Presley!
AM: This is remarkable. I hope your career goes another 30 years Ronnie.
RM: Oh yeah, I’m still having fun. I still enjoy performing and I’m still writing songs for everybody. I got into the business as a songwriter. I’ve got a song out right now by a Pop music group called Tusk.
AM: You stay busy.
RM: I do. I also paint, because to me it’s all the right side of the brain and being creative. I’ve been blessed with a lot of creativity and I use it. My doctor told me, “Ronnie you either use it or you lose it and by the way, that goes for everything!” (Big Laughter)
To learn more about Ronnie McDowell visit his web site http://www.ronniemcdowell.com/