Published in GRAND Magazine Issue 21 March April 2008 pp 36-41
Fanatic Grandparents – Cover Story Interview with Grandfather Ronnie Milsap
Ronnie Milsap talks with Mary Ann Cooper about his passion for his music and his family
Country And R&B legend Ronnie Milsap was born blind and into extreme poverty in the Appalachian town of Robbinsville, North Carolina. Unwilling to accept her newborn’s blindness, Ronnie’s mother gave him to his grandparents to raise when he was just a year old. At age 6, Ronnie was cut off from everything he knew and held dear when he was sent to the Governor Moorehead State School for the Blind in Raleigh. All along, the sightless child took refuge in music. Moorehead School put him through strict classical music training, a program that was heightened after the young boy early on showed a natural talent for it.
Even so, Ronnie couldn’t get enough of the country music, gospel and rhythm and blues he listened to so avidly on the radio. These diverse musical influences served to enrich his development and ultimately his career. Ronnie has had more top country hits than anyone except the late Conway Twitty. Over his career, Ronnie has sold more than 25 million records and has had 40 #1 hits, seven Grammy Awards, four Academy of Country Music Awards, and eight Country Music Association Awards. Through it all, Ronnie has had his wife, Joyce, at his side. Their 42-year marriage produced one son, Todd, who has blessed them with three grandchildren who have become the loves of their lives.
Now we have grandchildren, and that’s our new life. They are very, very special. Our oldest grandchild is named Kye Leigh. She’s 13. We have two grandchildren by Todd’s second marriage: Mya Joy is 9; and we have one grandson who is 7, and his name is Wyler Todd. They love their Papa and Nana. They love to come to Papa and Nana’s house. They come over here probably two or three days a week.
Kye Leigh is now officially a teenager. She’s changed schools and is going to school in Nashville, where there is a much better chance for her to get a better education. The only thing was she had to separate from all the friends that she had through the seventh grade. Now she’s in the eighth grade. I’m afraid she’s already interested in boys. She’s got her iPod and her cell phone. She text-messages hundreds of times a day.
I don’t know yet if there’s any musical talent there, but Kye Leigh is very, very smart. Academically she makes A’s all the time. Mya does real well. She sings and has this incredible voice. She draws, and she’s into art. She does real well at school as well. Mya is a Type A personality. She’s very outgoing and very demanding in some ways-especially for her Nana. She loves her Nana and holds onto her every chance she gets.
Wyler T. is slightly quieter and very compassionate. I am amazed at his intelligence. For some reason some kids just get it. He sits and reads to me off the computer-and says words that are bigger than a 7-year-old should know in the context of something he’s reading to me. And I say, “Wyler, how do you know that word?”
He’s all boy, but he doesn’t get in trouble. He’s very kind. He’s less talkative than Mya, but what is interesting is that he certainly gets it that his Papa is blind. So he will take me by the hand in my own house (although I know every inch of this house), but he will lead me around by the hand, so he’s a very compassionate child. Kye Leigh is also highly sharp and comes over here usually when I get into a bit of a computer snag. And she will help me work out my problems with the computer. She’s a tremendous help.
All three of them, they love to go to the zoo in Nashville; we have a really good one in Nashville. They love to see the tigers and the monkeys. They love to go shopping in the dollar stores for little things to buy. They just love being with us whatever we do. My wife drives, and I sit in the passenger seat.
We are so crazy about our grandchildren, we’re fanatics! We spoil them. We can do that because their mothers are going to pick them up. We don’t discipline them except to say, “No, no, no, don’t do that. That’s not a good thing.” If someone starts yelling a lot because maybe Wylie is doing something on the computer and Mya wants to be on the computer at the same time, they kind of get into a brother/sister fight. And I have to break that up and say, “No, no, you can’t do that.” As far as discipline, that’s the extent of it. When it comes to our grandkids, we spoil them, we love them and we’re thankful for them.
Ronnie, raised by his grandparents, had a childhood that was quite a different story. He was anything but spoiled.
I was born in the Smoky Mountains probably a stone’s throw from where Dolly Parton was born. We were very poor; everyone lived in awful, extreme poverty. My mother didn’t want a blind child. So I grew up with my grandparents. That’s why they disciplined me, because I didn’t have a mother around. My father was around sometimes, but he didn’t get to make decisions. That was left up to my grandparents.
I noticed when I was 3 or 4 we had a Philco battery radio. I could listen to stations during the day in Knoxville, and at night I could hear Nashville, Cincinnati and Dallas and Atlanta. I quickly discovered that I could hear songs on the radio and I could memorize the words and the melody in a couple of plays. When I was 4 we went to the center of the social community, the church, and I sang in church by myself; that’s when I discovered I could sing.
When I was 5, my daddy and my grandparents decided I needed to go to school and I needed to go to a special school. I could not go to a public school, and the welfare department in Graham County in North Carolina arranged for me to go to the state school for the blind in Raleigh, which was 400 miles away from where I was.
Far away from home and within the boundaries of an isolated and highly disciplined atmosphere of the state school, Ronnie embraced music. Soon his instructors recognized his talents and passion.
We learned to read and write and how to do basic things like count by 5s and 10s and started to read Braille books. When I was in first grade, they discovered I might have an aptitude for music. They put a violin in my hand. I had heard of a fiddle before, because I was from the Smokies; and let’s face it, I was hillbilly. But I didn’t know what a violin was. They said this is the same thing as a fiddle.
I started studying when I was 7, and my teacher pushed and instilled in me the discipline to practice. Three lessons a week and three practice sessions a week. When I was 8, they said, “He’s doing really well with the violin. Let’s move him to piano.” I progressed quickly, and it was all classical music. I studied piano from the first grade to the 12th grade. I was always kind of playing things that were popular music of the time. I was supposed to be studying Mozart and Bach and all that. The piano teacher was impressed and said I was born with perfect pitch.
When Ronnie completed his studies at the state school for the blind, he soon discovered that his benefactors didn’t share his enthusiasm or passion for making music his life’s work.
I wanted to go to music school and study music. My counselor said, “No, you cannot study music. If you become a musician, you will fail and wind up out on the street. And you’ll become a liability to the state of North Carolina.” I was advised to study an academic way of life, to become something in history or political science. My family said, “You’ve got to go to college. You’re on scholarship to go to college; everything is paid for-your tuition, your dormitory.”
So, I made a plan. I wanted to go to Young Harris College (a junior college) close to where all my family and friends are. Then I wanted to go to Emory University for one year, then to Emory Law School. So that was the track I was on that was being totally sponsored by the Commission for the Blind in North Carolina.
Although Ronnie thought he’d put his passion for music on hold, he discovered it again in a recreation room next to one of the school’s laundromats.
This recreation room had a ping-pong table and all kinds of games, and there was a piano in the corner. My roommate said, “I’ve got to wash my clothes,” and I said, “Would you mind showing me where the piano is? While you wash, I’ll just tinker around on the piano.” I started playing all of the songs of the day: Orbison, Elvis and Smokey Robinson. Before long the room was jam-packed. My roommate came back and said, “What in the world is going on?” I must say that broke the ice. All of a sudden everybody wanted to be my friend.
Soon, Ronnie’s music talents caught the attention of a wealthy family that would change his life. During the fall, I met a family down in Gainesville, Georgia. They were in state road construction, and they were a very wealthy family. The son was my age; and when he heard me play, he said, “You’re in the band. You’re coming down here, and I’m going to book these shows every weekend.” I told him he had to buy me an electric piano. He said, “You got it.” This young guy would come up to Young Harris in his candy-apple-red Corvair and take me down to Gainesville. We’d play Friday and Saturday night; and he started taking me to Atlanta to an R&B club called the Royal Peacock on Sunday night, where all the big artists of the day played.
The first show I went to see was Jackie Wilson; then I went to see Stevie Wonder and Ben E. King. I’d leave college at three o’clock on Friday and wouldn’t get back until six o’clock Monday morning. I’d be gone all that time and with no sleep.
By this time, Ronnie knew that he was not destined to be a lawyer. And after his idol, Ray Charles, encouraged him to follow his heart, he took a leap of faith.
I contacted the Commission for the Blind in Raleigh and said I was going to try the music business. And they said, “That’s a big mistake. You’ll be a failure. Don’t you know what we’ve told you? You’ll fall flat on your face. Do something where you can get a job that is substantial, something you can count on for the rest of your life.” I said, “But I love this music so much it’s a passion, and I just can’t live without it.”
Maybe this is a little too harsh of a word, but they were so disappointed they basically disowned me. Luckily it all worked out. I made my first record, and it did pretty well. Then I got a contract with an R&B label. We put a record out, and it went to top 5 on Billboard. It was called “Never Had It So Good.” And that’s how I felt. I thought to myself, “Well, they said I’d be out on the street, but I’m not there yet.”
Cut off from his benefactors, Ronnie set out on a successful recording career at the tender age of 20. It was also during that time that he met the woman who would become his wife.
I met Joyce at a dinner party in Atlanta. I swear it was instant and she felt the same. Does the universe guide us? She started talking about music and how much she loved Jim Reeves and how much she loved Ray Charles, and I’m all of a sudden thinking, “Wow, here’s the common denominator. This young girl loves music. She has a ton of records, and she even had Ray Charles’ latest LP. I hadn’t even bought it yet. She introduced me to it- an album called Sweet and Sour Tears, which came out in 1964.
I knew I wanted to go out with Joyce. I’m telling you, when it came to Joyce, it was like love at first sound. I took her to a jazz show, and it was magical. We danced, and someone else wanted to dance with her. I said, “I know I have no right to ask, but please don’t do that.” And she said, “Okay, I won’t.” At the show, the guy who played the piano knew me and said, “I want Ronnie Milsap to come up here and play a song.” I played three songs. One was by Elvis, and a couple others were R&B songs; and the bass and the drums accompanied me. I was feeling great.
After the show, Joyce was going to give me a ride, and I was feeling so good I said, “I’ll race you to the car.” I ran through the parking lot, and I ran into the car and just about broke my leg. She said, “Are you all right?” And I said, “Yes.” She didn’t go through this thing: “Oh, are you all right, did you break your leg?” Right then I knew she was the one for me. And we’ve been a team ever since then.
Sidebar: Alone and scared at age 6, Ronnie makes a new friend
When I was 6, my uncle and my aunt, who had just gotten married in 1949, took me, along with a representative of the welfare department, to the School for the Blind in Raleigh; and we got there and toured the facility. It was a residential school on a 90- acre campus with dormitories and buildings. I was left there when I was 6, and it was a very traumatic experience.
I remember a part of the Bible where it talks about Joseph being sold into slavery, and so I thought when I was left at the school that I had been sold into slavery. I was in the dormitory assigned to the real young students, and I was lying on the floor and crying my heart out. They had left, and I was totally alone.
Before long I got outside on the steps. I heard another little child crying, and I went over to him and introduced myself and found out he was from Monroe, North Carolina. We became very good friends and bonded that day. So we weren’t alone anymore. Over the next couple of days I met a lot more students who were my age, made friends with them, so I wasn’t alone anymore.
Sidebar: An encounter with Ray Charles changes Ronnie’s life
When I was 20, my friend took me to a Ray Charles show in Atlanta. I said, “I’ve got to get backstage and meet Ray.” I was told, “Nobody goes backstage to meet Mr. Charles, nobody.” I was walking around backstage with my friend; and Ray’s pilot was there, and he said, “Come on over here, and I’ll get you in to meet Ray. While he’s on stage doing his show, I’ll take you to his dressing room. Nobody will know.”
Ray finished his show, and he came in; and there were dozens of people in there to greet him. I waited for 20 minutes or so until he met all his friends. There was all this backslapping and hugging and laughing and crying and going on about how they all loved Ray Charles.
Then someone said, “There’s just one more young man who wants to meet you.” And I said, “Mr. Ray Charles, my name is Ronnie Milsap, and I’m totally blind; and I got to say you’re the biggest inspiration of my life. I’ve studied your music. I love your music. I play all your music live in shows, and I’m at a turning point in my life-a dilemma. I’m studying to be in academics. I’m going to college and plan on going to law school. And that’s what my advisers have set up for me. But I love music. I had 12 years of classical training in Raleigh when I was there. I love music more than I love academics, more than I like making out wills and contracts.”
There was a piano in the dressing room, and he aid, “Well, play me something.” I played a song I’d been writing; and I played a couple more songs. Then I stopped, and there was total silence. And Ray said, “Well, son, you can be a lawyer if you want to, but there’s a lot of music in your heart; and if I were you, I’d follow what my heart tells me.” That was all I needed to know.