Tuesday, September 30, marked the end of an era for me. I've been faced with some challenges lately, but none more heartbreaking than the loss of my dear friend and hero, Ronnie Dawson. Ronnie was 64 and had been battling the big C down in the big D. It won.
I played my last show as a Flattop on Friday, September 26, in Las Vegas. This show was dedicated to my, at the time, still ailing friend. Though he was unable to speak, his wife conveyed my message and said that it made him smile. She offered to bring the phone to him so he could hear me, but I was unable to form words (anyone who knows me knows this rarely happens). He died three days later, peacefully, surrounded by family and friends.
When I learned back in February that Ronnie was battling cancer, I paid him a visit at his home in Dallas. We spent an entire day in conversation. We shared old road stories, chatted excitedly about music, and laughed a lot. We talked about everything. I got the opportunity to thank the man for his overwhelming influence on my life, not just as a musician, but as a gentleman and a human being.
With a haphazard Hail Mary phone call back in the early '90s, I somehow convinced this rock 'n' roll legend to tour with my young band. I was at a particularly wayward point in my life. Being a musician in a touring band at that age, I was assailed with temptation and conflicting reports on what was cool and what was right or wrong.
So Ronnie came to Rochester. Ronnie clarified. Ronnie rocked. Ronnie saved my soul.
For roughly two years we played a pile of memorable shows together. And whenever I'm in Detroit or Chicago or Charlotte or Washington, DC or San Francisco or Dallas, the roar of those shows is still in my ears: the sharp twang of his guitar and his constant shouts of "yeah boy!"
Everything I portrayed on stage from that time on was a direct result of Ronnie's patience, guidance, and love. When we spoke on our last visit he referred to me and all the musicians around the world lucky enough to play with him as "my boys." How proud and lucky I am.
Ronnie was born in Dallas, Texas on August 11, 1939. His father, Pinky Dawson, fronted a popular swing band that proved to be Ronnie's introduction to his love of music.
As a teenager Ronnie formed his first band, Ronnie Dee & The D Men. The band domineered the "Big D Jamboree" for 10 straight weeks. Gene Vincent's manager, Ed MacLemore, signed the group and they released their first single, "Action Packed," backed with "I Make The Love." Soon, with a move to Dick Clark's Swan Records, Ronnie's career seemed to be rolling. But the Payola scandal hit and left the first phase of his career in limbo.
In the interim, he worked as a session musician on hits such as Paul and Paula's "Hey Paula," and Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby." He also recorded under the pseudonyms Snake Munroe and Commonwealth Jones for Columbia Records, who signed him thinking he was a black artist. Ronnie performed with The Levee Singers, and in the early '70s formed a hard country outfit called Steel Rail, that would prove to be a precursor to Southern rock.
Ronnie was rediscovered in 1986 by British record collector Barney Koumis. Energized by the popularity and success of his old material, Ronnie began recording on Koumis's label. He opened for bands like The Cramps, and introduced a whole new generation to "Rockinitis." And that's where young punks like me came in.
Ronnie Dawson's passing is a tremendous loss to his wife, band mates, and friends and fans around the world. But it would have been a bigger tragedy to never have known him or heard his music. He has gone on to bigger and better things but will live on in my heart and music forever. To quote the man himself from his classic "Rockin' Bones":
I wanna leave a happy memory when I go
I wanna leave something to let the whole world know
But his bones keep rockin' long after I'm gone.