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To pay the bills, Dawson also got work singing jingles and doing commercial voice-overs, often as a "good ole boy" character. The Hungry Jack Biscuits commercial is still fresh in his mind.
"I'd sing 'Hongry! Hongry Jack/You gobble 'em up 'til yer plate comes back.' It was a TV commercial with this big giant guy. All you could see was his feet. . . . Every once in a while, I go in now and punch a clock, and some of these things just get really bad. The more they sell 'em, the more words they try to get in 'em, but they still want it to be musical--like a song where you've got to get five or six words in a measure to describe a motor home or portable buildings--that's what I've been doing lately. It gets weird. I still would not do one if it was against my political principles . . . like anything Republican."
Dawson's salvation came one day in 1986, when British record producer Barney Koumis, a rockabilly fan, called and asked if he could issue a U.K. album of Dawson's unreleased '50s sides. During the course of several calls, Dawson made it clear he'd like to return to his roots. Koumis helped line up a British tour that commenced at a hall in Birmingham, England, the next year.
"I just embraced it, man," Dawson says. "At that point in my life, I was so ready to get out of Dallas. I was really ready to go, and I just blew up when I got over there. . . . I couldn't believe it. All these people started embracing me. I was in heaven. I didn't want to go home." Four albums later, Dawson says he hopes to keep performing for another 15 years. That would make him a 72-year-old rocker. It's hard to imagine. But he has one distinct advantage over some of the other early rockers who still sporadically perform: Dawson doesn't seem in the least resentful.
"I haven't lost tons of money," he says, "but I've had gigs that didn't work, like everyone else. You can't be bitter about it. Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry--why these guys are bitter I'll never understand. I understand the racial thing--but they're loved! They're American icons. And I've heard some weird stories about both of them. You can waste so much time hating.
"That first show in England, I was with Joe Clay [a minor rockabilly star in the '50s]. He was in the back room pacing and smoking cigarettes, going through that nervous-waiting-star bit, and I said, 'Man, what are you doing that for? I'm going to go out and get to know these people and hug their necks'--and that's what I did."
Ronnie Dawson is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, March 18, at the Rhythm Room, with Flathead. Showtime is 9 p.m.