Ronnie Milsap was raised on rock and R&B, but there was plenty of country in his soul. Born in 1943 with a congenital disorder that left him almost completely sightless, young Milsap learned to play piano at a school for the blind and began listening to artists rooted in rock and R&B – Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. He incorporated their sounds into a soulful, country/pop style that made him one of the most versatile crossover artists of his time. Many of Milsap’s No. 1 country smashes, including “Smoky Mountain Rain,” “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” and “It Was Almost Like a Song” made significant dents on the pop charts. His remake of Chuck Jackson’s R&B hit “Any Day Now” peaked at No. 1 on the country charts and No. 14 in pop.
Those and other crossover gems are featured on a new compilation album The Best of Ronnie Milsap, out now through retail and online outlets. The album’s focus is primarily on Milsap’s crossover hits, starting from the late 1970s. The Craft Recordings company acquired many of Milsap’s original RCA selections in an effort to curate his most important and vital works. For this album, 12 of Milsap’s most successful crossover singles were remastered, with new liner notes included.
Milsap shared his memories of some of those hits with Sounds Like Nashville. He was fortunate, he notes, to get the prime cuts by the ace songwriters on Music Row. “There were so many great writers,” he says. “We really depended on them. Mike Reid was one of my favorites. We had a lot of hits together.” Two of Reid’s songs, “Stranger in My House” and the nostalgia-tinged “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night),” appear on The Best of Ronnie Milsap.
“On ‘Lost in the Fifties Tonight,’ we had several tracks of background vocals,” Milsap remembers. Released in 1985, “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)” was a smooth medley combining the original written by Reid and Troy Seals with a cover of The Five Satins classic, “In the Still of the Nite.” A pure showcase of Milsap’s deep R&B roots. it became his 27th No. 1 country single and landed at No. 8 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.
The songwriting tandem of Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan contributed two of Milsap’s most popular tunes, “Smoky Mountain Rain” and, with Charles Quillen, “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World,” both included on the new album. “Smoky Mountain Rain” was crafted after Milsap, who was born in North Carolina, told his producer Tom Collins that he wanted to find a tune about the Smoky Mountains area. “The writers came up with ‘Smoky Mountain Rain,’ and Tom called me and said that I’ve got to hear this,” Milsap says. “I loved it right away. It kind of reminded me of ‘Kentucky Rain’ by Elvis Presley. I played piano on that song when I was working as a studio musician in Memphis.”
There was a potential stumbling block, however. Jerry Bradley, the head of RCA Records, wasn’t as keen on “Smoky Mountain Rain” as Milsap. “He thought it was too much of a regional song,” Milsap explains. “He wasn’t sure that it would be a hit. But he said that if we all liked it that much, then we could go ahead with it.” A wise move by all parties – “Smoky Mountain Rain” topped both the country charts and the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart in 1980 and remains one of Milsap’s most requested numbers.
“Smoky Mountain Rain” continued the more pop-laden style that Milsap adopted in the late 1970s. Fans got their first taste with the heartbreaking, piano-driven ballad, “It Was Almost Like a Song,” which stayed at No. 1 for three weeks in 1977. “That song has such a great intro,” Milsap raves, referencing the opening piano sequence. “People know what it is as soon as they hear those first few notes.” He recalls that he first heard the song while on the road, listening to some tapes from a then-unknown writer named Archie Jordan. “I reworked it on the piano,” Milsap says. “I called Tom [Collins] and told him to come over and listen to it, and he loved it.”
“It Was Almost Like a Song” holds a special place in Milsap’s memory, for several reasons. The tune marked his first entry onto the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, as well as his first to make the Adult Contemporary pop chart, where it reached the No. 7 spot. “I knew that record had a lot of potential,” Milsap says. “People often think of it as my signature song.” There was also a “first” for Archie Jordan, co-writer with the legendary Hal David, who scored his initial major hit as a songwriter. Jordan also composed Milsap’s No. 1 smash, “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life.” On a side note, “It Was Almost Like a Song” inspired the title of Milsap’s biography, Almost Like a Song.
During the peak of his career, from the late 1970s through the decade of the 1980s, Milsap racked up 35 No. 1 singles, which currently places him fourth on the all-time list. At one red-hot stretch, 1980-83, Milsap ran off a string of ten consecutive No. 1s. He’s also received his share of industry accolades. In 2014, Milsap was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He’s been honored with four CMA awards: Entertainer of the Year in 1977 and three Male Vocalist of the Year trophies (1974, 1975, and 1977).
Milsap lets go a full, hearty laugh when he shares how he celebrated those CMA wins. Dining was involved, though you’d be hard-pressed to refer to it as “fine.” Following his victories, Milsap, dressed to the nines in formal wear, and his manager would take a limousine to an unlikely spot for their celebratory meal – the drive-through at a nearby Krystal hamburger joint. They’d order up a slew of those famed little square burgers and promptly devour them in their fancy limo. One can only imagine the incongruous sight.
“It’s true,” Milsap recalls. “We would go the big industry party at the Opryland Hotel and then head out to the Krystal. We’d drive up in the limo and get a whole sackful. They sure were good! You have to remember,” Milsap adds, by way of explanation, “that there weren’t too many restaurants in Nashville that stayed open late. It wasn’t like it is now. But those were fun days for sure.”
In light of all his accomplishments, Milsap could have every reason to walk away from the game and settle into retirement. But that “R” word hasn’t yet entered his vocabulary. Last year, he released the album The Duets, featuring vocal collaborations with an A-list lineup that included George Strait, Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town, and Dolly Parton. He still maintains an active tour schedule, though the recent COVID-19 concerns have forced some cancellations and postponements. But dates remain on the books for later this year. “I’m also planning for my next album,” Milsap says in an upbeat tone. “I have some songs put together. But I’m also excited about this ‘Best of’ album. That is a big deal for me.”