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Friday, June 17, 2011

ABOUT: Ronnie Dawson

DAWSON, RONALD MONROE (Aug 11, 1939 – Sep 29, 2003). Ronald Monroe “Ronnie” Dawson was a Texas rockabilly singer, songwriter and guitarist.

Born in Waxahachie to bandleader and bass player Pinky Dawson (of the Manhattan Merrymakers), Ronnie Dawson's musical career was based almost entirely in Texas, spanning from his early teenage years at the Waxahachie Southern Bible Institute to the months before his death from throat cancer in 2003. At the time of his death, he was considered to be of iconic influence on younger generations of rockabilly musicians.

Although Dawson was raised in a family with a primarily fundamentalist Pentecostal faith, musical talent ran a close parallel. Dawson stated that although he did not see a movie until he was 17, he found himself with a guitar in hand at around age 14. In addition to guitar, Dawson's (now musically retired) father Pinky showed him how to play the mandolin, drums, and bass guitar.

Ronnie Dawson's freshman act was called “Ronnie Dee and the D Men”, featuring his soaring tenor vocals, combined with a stand-out guitar sound based in rhythmic rock and roll with a hint of R&B, which was all the teenage rage in 1956. Within two months of its inception, the band Ronnie Dee and the D Men hesitantly entered (and confidently won) a talent contest for a spot on the popular and long-standing Dallas live radio show, The Big D Jamboree. This win earned the young band multiple appearances on the variety show, which aired from Dallas' Sportatorium, a legendary wrestling arena and music venue.

Ronnie Dee and the D Men were soon signed by Big D Jamboree producer (and Gene Vincent’s manager) Ed McLemore. With his assistance, the band soon recorded their first single on Backbeat Records, “Action Packed,” with a B-side of “I Make the Love.” Radio play for “Action Packed” and their next single (“Rockin' Bones” on the McLemore label) gained steady ground; more recording and television appearance offers arrived in swift succession.

Ronnie Dawson cut a compelling figure onstage; nicknamed “The Blonde Bomber,” he was tall and lanky with a trademark blond flat-top haircut and a wide, mischievous grin. His live performances were electric and acrobatic, such that they could challenge even those of the fiery young Elvis Presley. Dawson, however, frequently contended that his style of performance was taken not from Presley but directly from the dynamic Pentecostal revivals that he still attended.

Before long, star-maker Dick Clark signed the burgeoning young group to his Swan Records label and confirmed them for an appearance on “American Bandstand.” Ronnie Dee and the D Men never got to appear, however, for they had happened to arrive on the scene at the cusp of the “Payola” scandal of the late 1950s. The surrounding hullabaloo cut short their musical plans and consequently, hindered their chances for national stardom.

Undaunted, Ronnie Dawson continued his musical career with the help of some of his new connections. After the inevitable break-up of the D Men, Dawson toured as a featured guitarist with the successful Texas western-swing act, The Lightcrust Doughboys. He also employed his drumming skills for studio sessions of various popular artists at the time, such as Paul and Paula's “Hey Paula” and Bruce Channel's “Hey Baby” (also featuring Delbert McClinton on harmonica).

From 1959 to 1961 Ronnie Dawson recorded on several other labels (including Columbia Records). As was the tradition of many artists of the era, Dawson reinvented himself under new musical personae with several recording pseudonyms like “Commonwealth Jones” and “Snake Munroe.” Dawson commented in a 1980s interview with radio show “The Hound” on Jersey City-based station WFMU that he chose “Snake Munroe” as a pseudonym on Columbia because of his middle name (Monroe) and because he thought that the name “Snake” 'sounded cool.' The song he recorded under the name Snake Munroe, called “Do Do Do”, made waves in the R&B radio play circuit; Dawson said that Columbia was even under the impression that he was a black artist and attempted to market it as such. However, even with the heavy airplay, “Do Do Do” failed to sell enough copies to propel Dawson to further musical success.

The early 1960s marked a transition in Dawson's life both musically and personally. He began a strict health regimen that he maintained for the duration of his lifetime; he also joined popular Dallas-based singing group The Levee Singers which, as the folk movement gained speed, experienced considerable success on nationwide television shows such as “Hootenanny” and “The Danny Kaye Show.” Throughout the 1960s, Dawson stayed in the Dallas area and worked with the Levee Singers until musical trends and other transitions had him beginning a new country-rock band called “Steel Rail” in the early 1970s.

Dawson experienced a good deal of local success with “Steel Rail” throughout the 1970s; it was at this time that he also began doing singing and voice-over work for television commercials. Dawson's deepened voice boomed into households everywhere as a 'down-home' personality touting Jax Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup and Hungry Jack pancake mix.

While Dawson was hard at work keeping himself afloat in the music business in Dallas, younger bands (music revivalists, such as The Cramps) discovered Dawson's material from the 1950s. At the same time, the advent of the 1980s had begun a worldwide sub-cultural movement to “bring back” the older rockabilly artists of the 1950s, primarily by releasing their older cuts on CD and booking them to rockabilly-themed festivals. His early cuts, such as “Rockin' Bones” and “Action Packed,” endeared Dawson to collectors and promoters on the festival circuit worldwide and by the mid 1980s, he found himself a star once again, arguably more than even the small taste of stardom he had experienced in his early years.

Re-releases of Dawson’s early career occurred consistently throughout the 1980s, and in the 1990s, bolstered by his success, he began again to record and release new original material. This time he used a new generation of rockabilly musicians whom he had met during his recent musical forays, all of which possessed a love for recreating the authenticity of the original rockabilly and blues sounds. With a young energetic crew as his backing band, Dawson continued to remain highly active with live performances and recordings for the remainder of his life.

Many music journalists and critics believe that Ronnie Dawson's musical endeavors reached a summit in his later career years rather than his early years, even though he was performing the same style of music (firmly rooted in the country, blues and rockabilly genres) as he had in the 1950s. This continued pursuance of his early music is a departure from other white musical artists who had similar genre-specific careers of the era, and his success at delivering it 30 years later provides a compelling case for his influence on many musicians today.

From the beginning of this resurgence until (and past) his diagnosis of throat cancer in 2002, Ronnie Dawson's music and performances continued to breed new fans worldwide; meanwhile, regional, national and international media touted Ronnie Dawson as a Texas-bred musical legend. Following Dawson’s death on September 23, 2003, numerous memorial shows were held in his honor, all of which contained a moment when the attendees banded together to sing a verse from Dawson’s 1957 rockabilly anthem, “Rockin' Bones.”

Lord, when I die, don't you bury me at all
Just hang my bones up upon the wall
And under them bones let these words be seen:
“Here's the runnin' gears of a boppin' machine!”


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