Ronnie Dawson - Biography
By Charles Reece
A casual listener is not likely to accidentally come across the music of Ronnie Dawson. He never had any hits and the few songs that had any chance at being hits were not widely distributed in the late 1950s to early 1960s when they were released. It is the potential of discovering old rockabilly recordings such as his that makes the cultist’s obsessive devotion to music seem worthwhile. That Dawson survived through the changing fads of popular music while remaining committed to playing music rooted in the old-fashioned Southern styles provides a bit of truth to the rockabilly outsider mythos.
The only child of Pinkie and Gladys, Ronald Monroe Dawson was born on August 11, 1939 in Dallas, Texas, but spent most of his childhood in Waxahachie, Texas. Pinkie was a professional string bass player and leader of his own swing band, the Manhattan Merrymakers, until his son’s birth, after which he sold his bass and opened a filling station as a more stable source of income. Gladys was musically inclined as well, singing weekly at their Assembly of God church. With a racially mixed denomination and his father’s love of jazz, little Ronnie was raised with a variegated interest in the various forms of American popular music. As a teenager, his favorite artists were the older guys like T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan along with contemporary youth favorites such as Chuck Berry, The Clovers and The Dominoes. Pinkie might have given up on his life as a professional musician, but he seemed to have encouraged his son down the same path by teaching him the basics on a variety of instruments: mandolin, guitar, bass and drums. Ronnie was regularly practicing music while he attended the Southwestern Bible Institute (the school most famous for expelling Jerry Lee Lewis). After being kicked out of there (smoking being among the list of his violations), he discovered a penchant for playing live when a group of friends at his Waxahachie high school encouraged the shy teenager to play the Future Farmers of America talent show. With the seed now planted, Ronnie formed his first rock and roll band.
Ronnie Dee and the D Men went on to win the Big D Jamboree talent show at Ed McLemore’s Sportatorium in Dallas for 10 weeks in a row. Dawson’s prize for this feat was being signed to McLemore’s roster of artists (including most notably Gene Vincent) and – following the Jamboree’s rules – the release of his first single, “Action Packed” backed with “I Make The Love” (1958 Backbeat Records). The Jack Rhodes-penned A-side was originally recorded by another of McLemore’s artists, Johnny Dollar, but Dawson’s version is the best remembered. With a voice still waiting to crack, Dawson conjures up the teen angst of all those hot rod flicks following the success of Rebel Without a Cause. The single had enough regional success for McLemore to release another of Dawson’s singles on the former’s label, Rockin’ Records. As with the first single, “Rockin’ Bones” (1959) was written by Rhodes and garnered enough regional attention to get Dawson signed to a bigger label, the Dick Clark-financed Swan Records. With its promise to keep rocking on into the grave, the song has since become a rockabilly anthem and Dawson’s most representative track.
However, his career as the newly christened Blonde Bomber (regarding the color of his flat-top) was put on hold at Swan, which tried to recast him as a milquetoast teen idol, along the lines of a Dixie-fried Pat Boone. Instead of trying to replicate the raw energy of Dawson’s live performances as they had promised, the production-songwriting team of Frank Slay, Jr., and Bob Crewe would not let him play guitar in the studio, giving him the horn-inflected and piano-led “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head” (1959) to record as his first single for the label. Not to be confused with the song made famous by Dean Martin, the recording demonstrated Dawson might have had a promising career following in his father’s footsteps with swing. Despite being promoted with a lip-synching appearance on Clark’s American Bandstand, it was the maudlin B-side, “Hazel,” that went on to have more commercial success – at least, around Pittsburgh, where it was on heavy rotation at the local radio station, KDKA. Swan released only one more single from Dawson (1960’s “Decided By The Angels”/”Summer’s Comin’”) before dropping him due to the financial constraints brought on by Clark and the label’s entanglement in the payola scandal at the time.
Although he would later disown the Swan recordings, Dawson was still trying to capture the white-bread teen market with a couple of bubblegum pop tunes he released through Do-Boy Records as Johnny and the Jills (with the head Jill being Brenda Branch). When neither “Poor Little Johnny Smith” nor its flipside “Pauline” caught on (1960), Dawson returned to recording songs closer to his own interests while supporting himself as a sideman in the country band The Light Crust Doughboys or playing as a session musician for other artists (e.g., his drumming can be heard on Paul & Paula’s “Hey Paula”). Through the early 1960s, Dawson continued a close partnership with songwriter Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery (who had written the two aforementioned bubblegum songs), recording a number of R&B songs as Snake Munroe. When Columbia Records purchased Dawson’s versions of “Do Do Do” and “Who’s Been Here?” from Montgomery (serving as the singer’s manager), they changed the pseudonym to Commonwealth Jones for the single’s release in 1961 (with the former as the A-side). That single did no better than the second Jones release on Banner Records, “Jump & Run” backed with “Tied Down” (1962; both written by Dawson and Montgomery).
Not faring too well as a solo artist, Dawson joined the Dallas-based, folk-bluegrass group The Levee Singers. He can be heard quite prominently on their self-released 1962 single “Riders In The Sky” (Levee Records) backed with the excellent rock and gospel number, “Everybody Clap Your Hands” (the latter of which, Dawson co-wrote). The group did well enough through the remainder of the 1960s to make regular appearances on a number of TV variety shows, such as The Danny Kaye Show, Hootenanny and The Jimmy Dean Show. After the group disbanded, Dawson formed a country rock band, Steel Rail, with whom he toured Southwestern clubs throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. It was during this period that Dawson found a new career in advertising, starring in and/or writing jingles for Hungry Jack Pancakes, Cici’s Pizza and Jax Beer among others.
Commercial work might have been the end of the Dawson’s story had it not been for the increasing collectors’ interest in rare rockabilly records that began in 1970s, as well as the genre’s resurgence being augmented in the underground scene by groups like The Cramps (who recorded a version of “Rockin’ Bones” for their album Psychedelic Jungle). After a call from British record collector Barney Koumis wanting to release a collection of Dawson’s highly sought after early recordings for the former’s label, No Hit Records, the singer had a new life as a solo artist. The 1986 collection, Rockin’ Bones, generated enough interest for him to make his first tour of England and to release two more records for the label: Still a Lot of Rhythm (1988, containing newly recorded material) and Rockinitis (1989, his first live album). Dawson’s voice had finally adjusted to puberty in the intervening years, but these records showed he continued to have a youthful spirit, even if that spirit was a bit dated.
Dawson continued recording throughout the 1990s with a commitment to the sounds of his youth for a variety of independent labels: Monkey Beat! (1994 Crystal Clear Records; along with his live album, it features playing and production of Morrissey’s guitarist, Boz Boorer), Just Rockin’ & Rollin’ (1996 Upstart Records) and More Bad Habits (1999 Yep Roc Records; his first and only long-player to be recorded entirely in the United States). After years of being largely ignored stateside, he was finally getting the attention for which he had worked so hard, with a couple of performances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, as well as his songs being featured in the films Primary Colors (1998) and Simpatico (1999). His tour for More Bad Habits was announced as his last, even though he continued to play an occasional live show in the early 2000s. One of the truly good old boys, when diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002, many of his fans and admiring musicians organized benefit shows to help him pay for his medical bills. He succumbed to the disease on September 30, 2003, after it had spread to his lungs. Dawson is survived by his wife, Chris, whom he had dated back in the 1960s and finally married in 1996.