Many times over the last four decades it seemed like Ronnie Dawson was on his way to being somebody. At the ripe age of 17, he was picking and yelping his go-to-hell rockabilly on American Bandstand. He was part of seminal rock impresario Alan Freed's stage shows. He played on two No. 1 hits in the early Sixties, Bruce Channel's "Hey! Baby" and Paul and Paula's "Hey Paula." And he recorded his own music for labels like the Dick Clark-affiliated Swan and Columbia.
But things never really worked out.
Doesn't seem to bother him, though; the affable Texan's still at it, still playing the undiluted rockabilly that's more about spirit than chart-topping.
"None of my songs were really hits," says Dawson, drawling down the phone line from his home in Dallas. "I never was a hit at all. Locally, yes, but not recordingwise. The records got a little play here in Dallas on black radio stations, believe it or not, because I was on Backbeat, a black-owned label."
Dawson's Fifties catalogue mainly amounts to a pair of hard-to-find singles, "Action Packed" and "Rockin' Bones," a song later feverishly covered by the Cramps. But these shit-kicking sides are enough to ensure him legendary status in rockabilly circles, where digging for obscurities is a way of life and players like Ersel Hickey and Hasil Adkins are accorded the same reverence as stars like Carl Perkins and Johnny Burnette. This holds true especially in England, where the fervor for good, old-fashioned American rock 'n' roll has never diminished. And you can bet the Brits love Ronnie. Particularly Barney Koumis, a young, rabid rockabilly collector who rediscovered--and bootlegged--many of Dawson's early recordings. But Dawson isn't sweating any loss of revenue. "Had it not been for bootlegs, my stuff wouldn't have been overseas," says the grateful Texan, whose own personal copies of his records have wound up missing or destroyed over the years.
Dawson befriended Koumis and supplied him with choice cuts that had been sitting in the can for almost three decades. Once Koumis released these rarities on his No Hit Records label, he persuaded Dawson to follow up with a new album, which Koumis wound up producing. That 1988 album, Still a Lot of Rhythm, is included along with 11 brand-new tracks on Ronnie Dawson's just-released CD Monkey Beat.
The album is an absolutely vibrant piece of work, fired-up rockabilly with a sheen of country and blues. "Blues has always been a big influence on me," offers Dawson. "I just like the greasiness of it. But I started out playing country. My father, Pinky Dawson, was a country swing musician in the Thirties. My folks weren't typical Texans, they weren't prejudiced. We went to the black Pentecostal church a lot, and when you see that kind of energy, that gets you ready for a lot of things."
Infused with that insight and inspired by the first crackles of the Clovers and Billy Ward and the Dominoes coming over the radio waves, Dawson packed his guitar and traveled to Dallas in late '56 to enter a talent show. "The Big D Jamboree was the place to go to play any kind of music, but it was more of a country show, like the Louisiana Hayride," recalls the singer. "If you won the contest ten times, you were invited to be a regular on the program, and they would offer you a recording contract. They did what they said. I won ten times, and in three months, I was looking at a record with my name on it."
Well, not exactly. The name of the song was "Action Packed," but the name below the title was not Ronnie Dawson.
"You know how they do things, always wanting to make changes," Dawson says, laughing. "They said, 'Well, Ronnie Dawson doesn't sound show-bizzy enough,' so they changed it to Ronnie Dee." (He also went by the moniker "Blond Bomber," because of his screaming yellow flattop.) As Dee he recorded "Rockin' Bones," a rave-up that sparked the attention of one Dick Clark, who hooked Dawson up with the Swan label.
"When I signed with Swan Records, that was a different thing altogether," groans Dawson. "I didn't play guitar on any of those [recordings]. They told me they wanted to record me the way that I sounded onstage. But when I got there, they changed it all around."
That's something of an understatement. Dawson cut two horn-laden 45s for the Philadelphia label, "Summer's Coming" and "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," which took off in Pittsburgh and almost broke, much to Dawson's horror. "It was like a Salvation Army waltz--it wasn't rock 'n' roll at all. Completely crazy."
Watered-down releases were not atypical back in the age of white-bread Frankies and Fabians; Dawson believes this was planned by certain evil folks in control of the business. Like one Dick Clark. "I think Dick Clark helped water a lot of it down," he continues. "I wasn't too crazy about him. Alan Freed was one of those guys who'd meet you, come to your dressing room and you felt really good. Dick Clark never did any of that. He always sent some secretary to ask you a bunch of questions and you felt it was a very stiff atmosphere. It wasn't a bad show to do, it was just him. He had that company kind of mentality."
The Sixties weren't kind to rockabilly. The few stars who weren't killed in plane and car wrecks were left for dead by public indifference in the States. "I went on Gene Vincent's last U.S. tour in 1960, and it was a complete failure," recalls Dawson. "Gene was the headliner, and he was dead, commercially speaking, by then. We were playing municipal auditoriums in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for about 50 people. Yet when he and Eddie Cochran went over to England, they were like royalty. And they still are."
Meanwhile, back in the States, Dawson had other problems to contend with, like his prepubescent singing voice quickly losing altitude. "I had to learn to sing again," growls Dawson. "It wasn't helping that I was singing in the same key as the original records. I got laryngitis and couldn't do anything for a year."
And what did Dawson do when he got his voice back? He started working as a drummer. "I was hired out as a drummer when I wasn't doing anything," he says, "which was a lot of the time back then." In 1962 and '63, Dawson managed to pummel the skins on two No. 1 hits from fellow Lone Star artists: "Hey Paula" by Paul and Paula, and Bruce Channel's "Hey! Baby," which also featured Delbert McClinton on blues harp. But Dawson sat in on a few, well, slightly more obscure dates, too. Ever hear the country version of "A Hard Day's Night" by Johnny Latrell? From the early Sixties until the English resurrected his rock career in the mid-Eighties, Dawson supported himself working as a studio musician doing jingles and commercials. You may have heard him as the low-down bass voice behind the Hungry Jack pancake commercials ("Hungry Jack--gobble 'um down and the plates come back"). Despite the rockabilly layoff--or maybe because of it--today Dawson's gifts for writing and performing rock-house ravers remain healthy and intact. And his attitude ain't bad, either; the aging contender believes the music is still a thriving thing. "I think now rockabilly's more popular here than it is overseas," he says. "It's in a little bit of a lull over there, especially in England. And that's the way it kinda does. But here, I'm excited about it."
Once a bastard son of country and R&B, these days rockabilly is viewed as a distinct, separate form of American music. Last May, no less a venue than Carnegie Hall hosted a two-evening folk festival celebrating traditional music from bluegrass to conjunto to, yes, rockabilly--and Dawson knocked 'em dead. He's a little late, of course, to make it as a teen idol, but he still looks good up there under the spotlight, whether it's in Carnegie Hall or some smoky dive. What does Dawson have planned? He lets loose a weathered laugh. "I'd just like to be in a place where I can go wherever I want and have a big crowd waiting for me when I get there.