After playing small Dallas clubs in relative anonymity for nearly three decades, 57-year-old rockabilly Ronnie Dawson is an overnight success.
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, named after the club where they appeared. They wore red bow ties and sang hootenanny music, but they made good money.
In 1969 Ronnie cut two straight-ahead country singles for Billy Sherrill, then the hottest producer in Nashville, but they went nowhere. Through the first half of the seventies, he worked a Dallas club with a progressive country band called Steel Rail; for the rest of the decade, he ran his own club, Aunt Emma’s, and fronted its house band. He also cut commercial jingles for products like Hungry Jack pancake mix. He was out of the spotlight, but he never really had to take a straight job. He was able to keep his graveside promise to his father partly by living modestly; he has occupied the same East Dallas efficiency apartment for 35 years, outlasting “several landlords and a few owners too.” He drives a faded green Ford supercab truck that he bought ten years ago.
In fact, he was happily living off his jingles in 1986 when he got a phone call from No Hit Records, a collector’s record label in England that wanted to re-release his old material. Ronnie was intrigued. When the CD finally did come out (as Rockin’ Bones), he assumed his old persona for the first time in 25 years and went overseas on tour. He found an audience stuck in a time warp. “I had an idea what to expect, but not really,” he says with a chuckle. “I was surprised when I got there. They were hard-core, man, really hard-core young people dressed in the fifties clothes, and they wouldn’t listen to anything but those old records.”
Ronnie made several return trips abroad, then cut the comeback albums Still a Lot of Rhythm (1988), Rockinitis (1989), and Monkey Beat (1993) for No Hit. In 1994 the comeback came home when Crystal Clear Sound of Dallas grabbed distribution on Monkey Beat, a raw, raucous import whose song titles (“Wham Bam Jam,” “Wiggle Waddle Woman”) were its own best review; it was combined with Still a Lot of Rhythm and released as a CD titled Monkey Beat. But only this year did Ronnie earn his own slot in the record stores. It began with the stateside release of the breakneck Rockinitis (Crystal Clear), followed by the all-new Just Rockin’ and Rollin’ (Upstart), on which he experiments with horn arrangements. Capping it off was Rockin’ Bones: The Legendary Masters, a double CD that features classic material along with such previously unreleased gems as “Green-Eyed Cat.”
Donning bright, custom-made Western shirts and a black leather jacket, Ronnie has been playing Texas and the rest of the country for more than two years. He has appeared on a major TV talk show, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, which is almost unheard of for an act not on a major label. Until this summer, he was backed by Austin rockabillies High Noon and augmented by Lisa Pankratz, arguably the only roots-rock drummer who has mastered the country technique of being simultaneously right there and barely noticeable. Pankratz anchors his current band, which includes 23-year-old Dutch guitarist Tjarko Jeen, who has played with Ronnie off and on since 1989.
If anything, Ronnie’s shows keep getting stronger. That’s partly because his American audience isn’t as small-minded as his core following overseas; there, his fans dress retro and jitterbug as though JFK’s ascent to the presidency were around the corner, but here he attracts a roots-rock crowd, blues fans, and even a smattering of punks (who know him through his cover of Dallas psychobilly the Reverend Horton Heat’s “Rockin’ Dog”). They have allowed him to be himself. Where today’s rockabilly revivalists are influenced by nothing except rockabilly—which makes them sound shallow—Ronnie has stayed true to his original influences. “My music is a little less on the ’billy side and a little more on the bluesy side,” he notes, “and that’s what makes me a little bit more distinguishable. I never really got to perform much back then. This was an open chapter in my early life, and I’m finally getting to close it. My music is for now.”
Ronnie Dawson, who knows better than anyone how unlikely his story is, saved the best for last.