Heıs best known for the hits that made him one of the most successful country stars of the 1980ıs, but Ronnie McDowell has long burned with another musical passion. Second only to his love of country music is his love of golden oldies.
Throughout his career, Ronnie has recorded and performed songs from the 1950ıs and 60ıs. In fact, among his hit country singles are remakes of such warmly remembered chestnuts as "Gone," "Itıs Only Make Believe," "Suspicion," "Unchained Melody" and "Just Out of Reach." Now he has teamed up with Rock "n" Roll Hall of Famers the Drifters to record an entire album in the vintage pop/rock style widely known as "beach music."
"Iıve always been a big fan of groups like the Drifters and the Platters," says Ronnie. "One day out on the road, I ran into Bill Pinkney, who was in the original Drifters in 1953. He and his group sounded so great. I asked him if he wanted to do some shows with me. He asked if I thought they would go over good with a country artist. I said, "Yeah! I love the stuff youıre doing. And I write songs like you might have done in ı64 or ı65."
During 1997 and 1998 Ronnie began showcasing the legendary r&b group at his concerts. Everywhere he did, audiences went wild, standing ovations ensued and requests for encore performances were offered. The Driftersı seamless harmony blend, jaunty rhythmic style and effortless showmanship gradually began to influence his own music.
"I spent a year working at the Crook & Chase Theater at Myrtle Beach, S.C. While I was there, I got into that mode of songwriting. I wrote "Boardwalk Girl," which to me just exemplifies 1964. When I came back to Nashville, I called Bill and asked him if heıd come to Nashville to record with me. When he said yes, I just went in and recorded the song with The Drifters on my own.
"I've been working in the Myrtle Beach area for years, so I knew all about "beach music" and "shagging" and all that. For years, my friends there have asked me to put out a beach album. Iıve always loved all that "50ıs and "60's music. Then I heard Alabama do that wonderful song "Dancin," Shaggin" on the Boulevard." Thatıs all it took. I decided I wanted to come up with a beach album with songs that would fit that shag dancing style. So I wrote a thing called "I Wanna Shag with You" strictly for it."
At this point, the beach-music album was merely Ronnie following where his bliss led him. During another one of his songwriting spurts, the singer composed two tunes in a teen-pop mode for his youngest son Tyler, 12. The resulting tape landed Tyler a contract with Curb Records. While discussing Tylerıs career with label president Mike Curb, Ronnie mentioned his own sessions with the Drifters. After hearing "Boardwalk Girl," the executive signed the father as well as his son.
"Mike said, "Put me together a whole new album with the Drifters." He suggested we do that old Clyde McPhatter song "Honey Love," which was one of their earliest hits. He suggested the Solomon Burke oldie "Cry to Me," as well as "Smokey Places."
With the additions of such gorgeous classics as "Your Precious Love," "Don't Let Go," "Without Love," and "My Happiness"," the album began to take shape. "Shama Lama" was drawn from the soundtrack of the 1978 John Belushi movie Animal House. At the studio, Ronnie's lustrous tenor was perfectly complimented by the groupıs flawless backup performances.
"People at the recording sessions were so impressed with how great the Drifters were. Bill still sings as well as he did 40 years ago. Nobody could believe how pure and true his voice still was. It's perfectly on pitch. Heıs always taken care of himself never drank, never smoked. The whole thing was like a dream come true for me."
It was Ronnie McDowell's love of old-time rock "n" roll that launched his career in the first place. Upon hearing of the death of Elvis Presley in August 1977, he wrote and recorded "The King Is Gone." The next morning he took acetate pressings of the song to Nashville radio broadcasters. All the phone lines at the stations lit up before the song had even finished playing. By that evening, the unknown was on the news, and that weekend he was invited to perform the number at the Grand Ole Opry. "The King Is Gone" sold more than three million copies during the next few weeks.
The massive hit led to a contract with Epic Records, for whom Ronnie recorded more than a dozen top-20 hits between 1979 and 1986. More success came during tenures with Curb Records (1986-96) and Intersound (1997-99).
Although best known as a singer, Ronnie is a songwriter of considerable talent as well. Many of his most memorable records were self-penned, including "I Love You, I Love You, I Love You" (1978), "Worldıs Most Perfect Woman" (1979), "Never Seen a Mountain So High" (1980), "How Far Do You Want to Go" (1980), "Watchinı Girls Go By" (1981), "All Tied Up" (1986), "When You Hurt, I Hurt" (1986), "Lovin' That Crazy Feelin'" (1987), "Make Me Late for Work Today" (1987) and "Never Too Old to Rock "n" Roll" (1989). Ronnie's songs have also been recorded by such stars as Billy Walker, George Strait, Louise Mandrell, Roy Drusky and Jean Shepard.
He is a gifted visual artist as well. Ronnie McDowell's historical scenes, Volunteer State vistas and lifelike portraits have been translated from paint to limited-edition prints that hang in homes and offices throughout Middle Tennessee. Ronnie has authored a historical novel as well as the upcoming children's book The Happy Pencil. He's a spotter of talent, too. Members of the Kentucky HeadHunters were trained in his road band. Son Ronnie Dean, 23, is his drummer -- he was formerly in the teen country act Six Shooter.
But Ronnie McDowell's abilities as a songwriter, talent spotter, painter and author have always been overshadowed by his vocal performances. He is well known as the "official" voice of Elvis Presley. His uncanny ability to sound exactly like the King has been showcased on the soundtracks of the highly rated 1979 Kurt Russell film Elvis, 1981's TV movie Elvis and the Beauty Queen, the 1988 ABC-TV mini series Elvis and Me, the 1989-90 TV series Elvis Aaron Presley and 1997's Showtime cable movie Elvis Meets Nixon.
"Every year, I work for two days with the Jordanaires during Elvis Week. We work at the Horseshoe Casino in Tunica, MS doing nothing but Elvis songs. And we have the best time. It's a treat to work with them." He is also close with Elvis's legendary lead guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, with whom he has recorded several tribute tracks.
In concert, Ronnie McDowell is also apt to break into his impressions of Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Louis Armstrong or Ernest Tubb. His remarkable vocal versatility has led to a "side" career as a singer of jingles for Chevy Trucks, Red Lobster, Kentucky Fried Chicken and others. One song on the new album, "Lite Lunch Beach (Mr. Bud)" has a product tie-in with Bud Light.
The new Ronnie McDowell with Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters album is the latest in a string of "theme" albums that Ronnie has released during the past decade. Between 1993 and 1999 he issued a country dance CD, a gospel collection, an Elvis tribute CD and a Christmas record. All have been enthusiastically received by the loyal listeners in his 33 fan-club chapters nationwide.
"I was one of the fortunate few who was allowed to build a fan base," he comments. "Back then, they would give you time to build a career. Because I have kept that base, I can still work every weekend. Conway Twitty was my mentor. I started working with him in 1979. He said, "Ronnie, if you want to save your voice and have longevity in this business, work two days a week and stay at home with your family the rest of the time." Over the long run, he was right. I've been working every weekend since 1979.
"After awhile you learn to "read" people. I go out into the audience and I get them involved. I donıt just stand up there and sing. I make them feel like theyıre a part of the show. And if it takes "Stardust" to make them get up and dance, that's what I'll do."
On Ronnie McDowell with Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters, the message is clear. This time, the dancers will be doing the shag. R.Oermann September, 2002