Last night I met Ronnie McDowell. His first hit was “The King Is Gone,” his 1977 tribute to Elvis, which got played on country and pop radio, reaching thirteen on Billboard’s Hot 100. With that hit, he could buy a house for his Mama, like Elvis did for his.
Ronnie never met Elvis, but he was hired to sing a number of his songs for the 1979 tv movie “Elvis,” starring Kurt Russell. There were other movies later, like “Elvis and the Beauty Queen” and the 1988 tv miniseries “Elvis and Me,” for which he sang as Elvis.
Ronnie had agreed to appear on our show, Studio 23 Nashville. The show is recorded each week in my studio, produced by Vince Pinkerton, and co-hosted by Jennifer Herron. Ronnie is managed by Debbie Grisham, who had recently brought Jim Glaser in as a guest. That episode of the show worked out great, so we’re happy to work with Debbie.
Ronnie arrived in his white Cadillac SUV, which contained a huge framed oil painting in the back. It was his own original, a highly realistic depiction of a specific historical moment: the morning Walt Disney boarded the California Limited in the Kansas City Union Station, heading to Hollywood. (Or, Hollywoodland, as it was then called - the original name of the real estate development that erected the famous sign with white letters in the hillside. It became “the Hollywood sign” when the last four letters were removed. Ronnie speculates that Walt Disney got his idea for the name Disneyland from seeing Hollywoodland when he first arrived in Los Angeles.)
There’s one actually commissioned by George Jones, depicting a famous incident where he got arrested for drunk driving in his John Deere tractor on Dickerson Pike. The way Ronnie tells it, Tammy Wynette answered the door when the police came, telling them George couldn’t possibly be out driving, because she had taken his keys away from him. But a resourceful Ol’ Possum, in the garage, found the keys to the tractor, and now the event is captured in loving detail by Ronnie McDowell.
Ronnie talked a lot about Conway Twitty, who had been an inspiration to him as a kid, along with Elvis. Ronnie talked about hearing Conway’s breakthrough 1958 hit “It’s Only Make Believe” as a boy, and being drawn to the power of that voice. Nearly three decades later, he teamed up with Conway to sing a new version of the same song, which hit the top ten in 1986.
“It’s Only Make Believe” is one of the songs we recorded on the show. Since there was no one else but me playing with Ronnie, I was the only available choice to do Conway’s part, if Ronnie didn’t want to do it. I wanted to give Ronnie the option of having someone else besides him sing that last verse, so I typed up the lyrics that Conway sang and kept them on the music stand, so I’d be ready.
And when that moment came, I got to sing Conway’s part on the song, along with adding spontaneous harmony to Ronnie’s chorus. He liked it!
Ronnie was loaded with stories. He was friends with Conway, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Dick Clark, and tons of others we heard about in his stories. One story was being invited by Dick Clark to give Michael Jackson his award for “Thriller” on the televised American Music Awards in 1982.
Another story he told reveals how heartache and greed can go along with talent and dreams. Dolly Parton had wanted Elvis to sing her famous song “I’ll Always Love You,” written as a farewell to Porter Wagner. She had the chance to play it for him. Elvis liked it, but his hard nosed manager “Colonel” Tom Parker asked for the publishing rights to the song. Dolly, according to Ronnie, said that she couldn’t give up her publishing on that song. It was a business decision - and a wise one. But also a sad one, as she told Ronnie, because she really wanted Elvis to do her song.
Before his music career, Ronnie was stationed in Vietnam, in the U.S. Navy. He worked as a barber in the Officer’s Barber Shop on the ship, cutting the hair of the admiral, whose name was Morrison. He remembers the admiral saying his son had done something he shouldn’t have done, and had been arrested in Miami. That turned out to be Jim Morrison, in a famous indecent exposure incident, and it was his father’s intervention that got him out of jail.
You can’t make this stuff up. Meeting Ronnie McDowell was a great experience. And you can enjoy the show when we put it online. Thanks, Ronnie, for being our guest. You brought a lot, and we enjoyed it.
-Blogging Bryan, 7 December 2017