When people think of Ronnie Milsap, they think of country. The Country Music Hall of Fame member had dozens of No. 1 hits in the 1970s and 1980s, including “It Was Almost Like a Song” and “Smoky Mountain Rain.”
In the 1960s, though, Milsap was a soul and R&B performer who recorded such songs as the bluesy “Let’s Go Get Stoned” the year before his friend, Ray Charles, made it a hit. A chance meeting with singer Charley Pride, while Milsap was performing at Los Angeles club Whisky A Go Go, would lead him to Nashville, Tennessee, and to that town’s musical style.
Pride’s manager signed Milsap, got him a record deal and sent him out with the “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” singer in 1973.
The manager, Jack Johnson, told Milsap that he would open for Pride until he learned “how it’s done,” Milsap said.
“I said, where we going? He said, Roanoke,” Milsap remembered. “The first show I did with Pride was there. I got to watch him and sit in the wings and listen to how he handled the show. He was a master to watch, and a classy, classy guy.”
It was a late October 1973 concert at the venue then known as the Roanoke Civic Center Coliseum. On Saturday, Milsap returns to the complex now called Berglund Center, this time to play the coliseum’s sister venue Berglund Performing Arts Theatre.
“So it’s kind of like a homecoming,” Milsap said. “It is!”
Milsap will bring a playlist of 40 No. 1 hits, many of which crossed over to the pop chart, including “Pure Love,” “(There’s No) Gettin’ Over Me,” “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World,” “Any Day Now” and the Kris Kristofferson-penned “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.” The latter number, released early in his career, won him the first of six Grammy Awards.
Nowadays, nearly all the biggest acts out of Nashville spend some time in the pop charts, and it doesn’t seem unusual. Milsap was a bit of a pioneer in that respect.
“’Crossover’ back then was kind of a nasty word to use,” Milsap remembered. “But [RCA Records executive] Joe Galante … said, you’re a multi-format artist. Just do what you do, and we’ll help. Joe helped me a lot.”
Milsap didn’t write his own songs, but he was a master at choosing them. He said that he and a friend, iconic producer Rob Galbraith, started their own publishing company. One of their favorite writers was Mike Reid, a former professional football player who would go on to have his own successful solo career.
“I’d sit and talk with Mike,” Milsap said. “He’d ask me, what kind of song do you want? I told him, I’m out on the road and the truckers always want to know when am I going to sing something about them.
“About a year later, he came back to me with ‘Prisoner of the Highway.’ When he played me ‘Stranger in My House,’ I told him, ‘You know I’m going to record that one.’”
Milsap gathered the players at his own studio in Nashville and sat behind his Wurlitzer electric piano. They cranked out a song that Milsap fondly remembers as his biggest international hit.
“It was a machine that worked really well, a well-oiled machine, especially all through the ’80s,” he said. “I had 12 No. 1 songs with Mike Reid. We had the publishing on it, so everybody made money. It’s just a great thing.”
Milsap, 74, has no interest in giving up the music business. He spoke with The Roanoke Times on Nov. 9 and planned to finish mixing a new project a couple of days later.
“I’m working on an album now that’s a duets album,” he said. “It’s coming out early next year. I sang a new song on it with Willie Nelson. I sing ‘Stranger in My House’ with Luke Bryan. The thing that really knocked me out so much was I sang ‘Smoky Mountain Rain’ with Dolly Parton.
“We’re just trying to keep coming up with new things. I love to go out on the road and play [he is booked well into 2018, he said]. The band is just exceptional. Best band I ever had, and a great crew.
“When we play in Roanoke, it’s gonna be a hot show.”