DALLAS ROCKABILLY RONNIE DAWSON made a promise at his father’s funeral in 1960. His dad, Pinkie Dawson, had led a Western swing band years earlier but quit after being injured in a car crash that killed two of his band members; between his rheumatic heart and the need to support his family, Pinkie just couldn’t justify sticking with music after such a scare. “When he quit playing, he started to die emotionally,” recalls Ronnie, who was only five at the time of the accident. “He’d still play around the house with friends, and when he played, he was a different person, and I loved that person. He’d holler and jump and dance around his bass. Otherwise, he was a pretty serious guy: a disciplinarian, very straight. I swore when he died that it wouldn’t happen to me. I was gonna do something with my music.”
Ronnie kept his promise—even to the point of avoiding marriage so he’d never have to feed more than one mouth—and it worked. For nearly three decades, he stuck with a career that, despite a promising start, had more downs than ups, except he chose not to see them as downs. Singing in commercials, woodshedding with an artsy progressive country band: It was good work in the music business, even if it wasn’t quite the same as knocking ’em dead every Saturday night on everyone’s favorite radio show, the Big D Jamboree. And today, finally, at 57, the long, lean rocker has become the bopcat topcat. The just-released Rockin’ Bones: The Legendary Masters (Crystal Clear Sound), a collection of his recordings from the fifties and sixties, is his third CD out this year, and he has toured almost nonstop since last spring.
In the cultish rockabilly world, Ronnie Dawson is the biggest cult hero of all—and he deserves to be. At a time when nearly all of his onetime peers are either dead, embittered, or burned out after years of amphetamines and whiskey, he remains an all-out performer who personifies what it was like when rock and roll was being born. He paced himself—he never did more than dabble in drinks and drugs, he has been a runner since he was 22, he is practically a vegetarian, and he doesn’t hit the road without his juicer—and now he’s in a league of his own. When you see him onstage with his toothy smile, bulging eyes, white-hot flattop, and guitar-slinger poses, you know he knows it too. “I’m doing much more now than I did back then,” he says, beaming. “As far as I’m concerned, this is my time.”
But it’s not his first time. Born in Dallas, Ronnie grew up there and in Corsicana, Navarro, and Waxahachie. His dad gathered with friends on the weekends for “house musicals” (jam sessions in someone’s home), and that’s where he picked up most of his guitar pointers; his vocal education came mainly from his mother, Gladys, who led the singing at the Assembly of God church. At first, his other musical influences were country and swing stars like Milton Brown, Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold, and Lefty Frizzell and bluesmen like T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown; then came Elvis, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and doo-wop groups like the 5 Royales. “We didn’t even hear this term ‘rockabilly’ when I began—it was all just rock and roll,” Ronnie remembers. “My music is a combination of blues, church music, and country, and that’s what rock and roll is.”
In 1956 he and his Waxahachie band, Ronnie Dee and the D Men, went to Dallas to compete in the “Search for Talent” segment of the Big D Jamboree. Ronnie, who was pushing seventeen, was dubbed the Blond Bomber by Big D emcee Johnny Hicks. After a slow start, his band won a hundred bucks and a record deal. The single they released in 1958 was “Action Packed,” a sort of talking-singing boast that opens with Ronnie commanding, “Gimme the downbeat, maestro!” What starts as a car song to end all car songs turns into a surging piece of teen supremacy that proves downright irresistible, with Ronnie’s pinched, shrill voice sounding more cocky than threatening. Though only one thousand copies were pressed, it was a regional hit, and it led to tours with Gene Vincent (with whom Ronnie shared a manager) and appearances on Alan Freed’s Dance Party.
The following summer, Ronnie came back with “Rockin’ Bones,” a manifesto he has spent the rest of his life living up to: “When I die don’t ya bury me at all / Just hang my bones up on the wall / Beneath these bones let these words be seen / The runnin’ gears of a boppin’ machine.” By then a Big D regular, he made a little noise locally with the song, but still not enough to chart. (Psychobilly godfathers the Cramps revived it on their Psychedelic Jungle album in 1981, by which time Ronnie’s original 45 was a high-dollar collector’s item.) Later that year Ronnie signed with Swan Records, a label in which Dick Clark was a partner, for two teen-balladeer singles with uptown arrangements. Ronnie got two appearances on Clark’s American Bandstand out of it. But the congressional payola investigations were just heating up, and Clark dropped the obvious conflict-of-interest practice of promoting his label’s records on his TV show; soon, the entire label dried up.
Ronnie spent the next few years in Fort Worth playing drums on recording sessions produced by Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery of the Light Crust Doughboys (He had sung a bit on their show from 1958 to 1960). At the end of one session, Montgomery produced Ronnie—using the name “Snake Monroe”—on some bluesy numbers that were later snapped up by Columbia Records. The label’s boneheaded marketing manager insisted Ronnie would sell best if his songs were released under the name “Commonwealth Jones” and promoted to a black audience. He was wrong, of course. Soon enough, Ronnie was back playing with Montgomery in a Dallas banjo band called the Levee Singers,