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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.
Still, Dawson figures he was lucky. "I look back on it and I see a lot of guys that had a hit or two, like Bobby Rydell. He'll always be remembered as a guy that came from that era and he's still looked at as a has-been. I'm glad I didn't get stuck in that time period. The way things turned out, I wouldn't change 'em for nothing."
Dawson is currently touring with King Memphis, a rockabilly revival quartet from Portland, Maine. It can be strange, he said, being around people half his age who are dedicated to music that was supposed to have died before they were born. "The guitar player I had here from Amsterdam last year, you just didn't say anything around him or he'd correct you. He knew more about America than I did."
In his teens, Dawson briefly attended the Southwestern Bible Institute. He was expelled--just like Jerry Lee Lewis, who preceded him there; Dawson's crime was smoking cigarettes. Nowadays, Dawson, 57, is a dedicated runner and a recovering vegetarian who totes a juicer on the road. He says young revival rockabilly players sometimes get on his nerves because they sleep later than he does and eat junk food.
Talking about rock's early days, Dawson can sound a little like Claude Rains' character in Casablanca, Captain Renault, who claims to be shocked by the goings-on at Rick's Cafe. Dawson was taken aback in 1960 when he toured with Gene Vincent, the older, fading rockabilly star.
"I really did like him," he says. "Everybody did--that was the thing with Gene, he was a very likable guy. When he got a little success, he got a little weird, but he was still likable. I went out with him on what was probably his last tour in the States, to places like Tulsa, Oklahoma; we were playing these huge places and only 15 people were showing up. That's when rock 'n' roll really started to make a change. And Gene, he lived every day like it was the last. I saw him drink a lot. And he would gamble; they were gambling on the bus--he'd just throw away money on a pair of deuces. It didn't make any sense to me. And he'd try to hit on young girls, get them on the bus with us--'C'mon, honey!' He didn't think about the consequences, like when these young girls' daddies would start hunting him--which happened. I told my manager I didn't want to go out with him anymore. I just wasn't raised that way, to destroy people's property and things like that. And steal--they stole stuff! It just astounded me."
From 1957 until 1960, Dawson also toured with inveterate Western swing band the Light Crust Doughboys, whose shifting lineup at one time included Bob Wills and Texas governor Pappy O'Daniel. The band's leader at the time, Marvin Montgomery, was Dawson's mentor. Dawson became the band's protege rocker, the bait it used to stay relevant. In photos from that time, Dawson is the only Doughboy not wearing a Stetson hat. He was ambivalent about playing with the band, he says.
"The pay was 30 bucks a day and expenses, and that was good, for me; I was able to pretty much sustain myself and my mom on that. And it was a very good experience. You didn't get very pumped up playing with the Doughboys, because you'd play grocery stores at 7 in the morning, but one of the reasons they took me is we played schools--they were one of the few groups that could get into schools. I'd play my rock 'n' roll songs. . . . They were all very dear people, but see--they were a fiddle band, and quite frankly, I was embarrassed by that, because fiddle bands were not cool. I can't imagine ever being that way, but I was.
"I talk to Marvin all the time now. They're still here, they're still doing shows, and we're talking about maybe doing an album together. I would love to do that. They had a song that was in a movie recently, called 'Pussy, Pussy, Pussy.' I can't remember the name of the movie it's in, it's a new one. He called me last week, Marvin, and he told me he just got a $14,000 check in from 'Pussy.' He's 84 now."
That song, "Pussy, Pussy, Pussy," remains a bit of a mystery. It shows up on "copulatin' rhythm" compilations, but, like the Treniers' "Poontang!", it's not clear what the title meant in its day.
"They never would own up to that," Dawson says. "I never heard 'em talk about that song. . . . I think they were kind of embarrassed by it--that's my opinion. I think they were just talkin' about a cat. I know a lot of white people were naive at that time. . . . But you know, it's pretty god-danged plain to me."
After the Swan debacle and his Doughboys stint, Dawson cut R&B songs with Montgomery in the early '60s as Commonwealth Jones; the idea was to sound black, he says. But while their efforts led to a deal with Columbia Records, and a favorable review in Cashbox magazine, the recordings sank like iron doughnuts. So Dawson retooled, again, and emerged as the head of Steelrail, a country-rock band inspired by Buffalo Springfield and Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band. He wanted to play original rock 'n' roll with a steel-guitar flavor, and was disappointed that he had to play covers to get club gigs.
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.