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Pat Cupp, Sonny Hall, Johnny Jano--where are they now? Burgeoning rockabilly stars once, they all had minor hits in the late 1950s. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone outside a small circle of obsessive collectors who knows they ever existed. All that's left are a few yellowing promotional cards.
Until a decade ago, Ronnie Dawson was on the same list. If you knew Dawson at all in the 1980s, it was as the voice for Hungry Jack Biscuits on TV spots, or as a longtime fixture on the Dallas country-rock scene--not as "The Blond Bomber," the kid who cut the rocker "Action Packed" in 1958.
A phone call from a British record collector changed everything for Dawson, reversing Fitzgerald's saw that there are no second acts in American lives. The rockabilly cut his long locks back to his original flattop, hopped a flight across the Atlantic, and set upon the path he still travels today. It's not a comeback trail, however. Dawson's career stopped short on the verge of fame the first time around. "I never really was anywhere," he said recently from his Dallas apartment. "I'm much more visible now than I ever have been."
At 57, Dawson may be the best example of a late bloomer the pop music world has ever seen. His rockabilly album last year for Upstart Records, Just Rockin' & Rollin', is arguably his best work to date.
"It's not just my music," he says. "My whole life has been that way. I mean, I didn't shave until I was 22 years old. My voice didn't change until I was 23. It was almost like I was put on hold."
The music that came to be known as rockabilly emerged slowly from the mid-1940s on, as country music and especially Western swing bands experimented with faster syncopation. The tinder was bone-dry in 1956, when back-to-back hits by Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins lighted a fire that leaped from pocket to pocket across America. First-wave rockers like Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis pulled the music forward by incorporating blues and R&B into pop. Dozens of small labels--Starday, Meteor, Satellite, Ekko--sprang up to accommodate ducktailed teens across the Southwest, including Dawson, who was then 17. Like punk 20 years later, rockabilly was never the commercial success that rock or disco would be, but it was far more influential. Its spirit of rebelliousness is still palpable in much of pop music today.
Dawson was typical of the young bopping cat with a guitar. His father, Pinkie Dawson, was the bass player and bandleader for the Western swing group the Manhattan Merrymakers. His mother, Gladys, was the choir leader at their church in Waxahachie, Texas, 28 miles south of Dallas. When little Ronnie heard his dad on the radio, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He began to learn to pluck chords on a mandolin before he was in his teens. Then he got a guitar.
Dawson got his first break when he won a Dallas talent contest and garnered a spot on the Big D Jamboree, a live, weekly concert broadcast on the radio. He soon became a regular on the bill. "I was 17 years old and I looked like I was 11," he says, "but musically I was pretty well along for that age. And I'd get in front of a crowd and something clicked. They'd end up putting us on very last no matter who played."
The next year Dawson walked into a Dallas studio and cut the torrid single "Rockin' Bones." "Well, when I die don't ya bury me at all," he sang in his adenoidal yip of a voice. "Just hang my bones up on the wall/Beneath these bones let these words be seen:/The runnin' gears of a boppin' machine." That song, along with 33 other single and demo recordings, was released in the U.S. last year on the two-disc collection Rockin' Bones (Crystal Clear).
Today, Dawson is known as a rediscovered rockabilly star, but he maintains "rockabilly" is not the best way to describe his music. "We never heard that term in those days," he says. "To me it's just rock 'n' roll. I like the term 'roots' much better than I do 'rockabilly'--I've got a blues edge to my sound. I'm just trying to be true to my influences, which were heavily Assembly of God churches and black churches." Dawson is also careful to note that early rock 'n' roll wasn't just hillbillies and cowboys getting rhythm. Only when black artists such as Bo Diddley notched hits did the music really take shape, he says. "I have never been the same since I heard Little Richard the first time. Elvis was okay, but he got what he had from black dudes."
After cutting "Rockin' Bones" (later covered by psychobilly rockers the Cramps on their 1981 album Psychedelic Jungle) and a clutch of other songs, Dawson signed with Swan Records, a label affiliated with deejay Dick Clark. Swan tried to tame Dawson's sound for broader appeal, and it might have worked--but before Dawson could make his scheduled appearance on Clark's TV show American Bandstand, the payola scandal broke. Clark, along with almost every other pop deejay, was suspected of taking bribes to play rock 'n' roll records. It didn't help that Clark owned a piece of some of those records. As the deejay took cover, the young Dallas rocker was left in the cold.