Ronnie Milsap talks about recording with Elvis Presley

By: Elvis Australia
September 2, 2023

Upon setting up shop in Memphis in the late 1960s, Ronnie Milsap joined forces with super-producer Chips Moman, and by decade's end, was tickling the ivories for none other than Elvis Presley.

It doesn't take a trained musical ear to distinguish how the pounding piano chords in The King's Kentucky Rain sound curiously similar to those in Milsap's smash Smoky Mountain Rain.

'Oh, I was given total (artistic) freedom (on Kentucky Rain)', Milsap recalled. 'The only suggestion I got from Elvis was that he wanted to hear thunder roll on the piano. He made that comment, and beyond that, he didn't say anything. He basically said, 'Play what you feel'. I thought, 'It worked on Elvis' record. . . . It will work on mine the same way, and it certainly did'.

Besides receiving royal treatment, Milsap remembers his brush with Elvis as a rich lesson in studio discipline and creativity. 'He was fun to be around and very experienced about recording', Milsap said. 'I mean, he had recorded so long, he knew the songs he wanted to record and he knew how he wanted them. He'd try them in one key, and if that didn't work, he'd try them in another. If he didn't like them slow, he'd try them fast'. 'He'd experiment with a song until he found something that he felt really was him'. It's this attention to detail and thirst for musical perfection that Milsap contends is Elvis' true legacy. 'He was the voice of my generation . . . the voice in my radio speakers', Milsap said.

Ronnie Milsap talks Elvis...

From Goldmine Magazine April 15, 2019

GM: Speaking of duets, you snag harmony vocals on Elvis' smash 1969 hit, 'Don't Cry Daddy'.

Ronnie Milsap: I did that as an overdub; Elvis wasn't in the studio for that session. It was a wonderful experience singing along to Elvis. He loved it and was very supportive.

GM: You also played keyboards on Elvis' 1970 smash hit, 'Kentucky Rain', what are your memories of those sessions?

Ronnie Milsap: I got to sing and play on those records and got to be around Elvis for an evening. That session with Elvis for 'Kentucky Rain' came about because there was no one else there to play piano. It came about because there was nobody else there at American Studios that night to do it. Chips Moman who was running that studio and producing the Elvis sessions said, 'Ronnie Milsap's here in the building, bring him in'. He introduced me to Elvis. 'Elvis, this is Ronnie Milsap'. And that was about it. I played on that record and sang on that record, too. I played grand piano on 'Kentucky Rain' while Elvis was cutting his vocal live. It was just incredible. To know that Elvis had decided to come back to Memphis and record. His producer Felton Jarvis was excited about it and he was partnering with Chips Moman who ran American Studios down in Memphis. I'd cut in that studio a lot. I lived in Memphis for four years. I tried to make records down there but I could never get anything that I was happy about.

GM: You hung out with Elvis at a New Year's Eve party?

Ronnie Milsap: Yes, that's right. I got to play a New Year's Eve party when '70 turned '71. That was at TJ's in Memphis, down in midtown in Memphis. He leased the whole club. I'd been playing there six nights a week 'til the crack of dawn. Elvis wanted to pick a place where the band was already in place and they could do the job. So he wanted to come hang out down at TJ's. I said, 'Elvis, I know you're probably gonna say no but I know every song you've ever recorded. Any possibility you might come up and sing one tonight? Tell me if you wanna sing 'Wear My Ring Around Your Neck' or 'One Night With You'. I know them all'. He said, 'Ronnie, I would prefer to just hang out here with my friends'. I said, 'Okay, I understand that but I had to ask you'. We spoke about the records I played and sang on and he loved all of that. He appreciated that I was on the records with him. But he had such history working in the studio it was just fun to be around him. I found out that he had people around him all of the time. If he was getting to walk somewhere there was a person in front and person in back of him and a person on each side of him. I said, 'Why is all of that?' And they said, 'Well, Elvis usually gets hit up in the bathroom. He'll go in the bathroom and somebody will come up and say, 'My mama needs hip surgery and I don't know what we're gonna do' and Elvis would just whip out his check book and write 'em a check for whatever that would cost'.

Elvis was great at the party. The times that I was around him he was a gentleman. Everything you think Elvis would be that's exactly what he was.

Here's something incredible. When Elvis passed in 1977 I heard that on his turntable was a copy of my album called 'It Was Almost Like A Song by Ronnie Milsap'. That was on his turntable so he knew what I was doing.

GM: Where were you when you found out you had your first No. 1 record with 'Pure Love'?

Ronnie Milsap: Now, I hit the Billboard charts in 1965. I was an R&B artist. I went to New York and recorded a song called 'Never Had It So Good' written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Put that baby out and it became a Top 5 soul record. As for my first No. 1 record, I was here at home and the head of promotion for my label called me and said, 'Milsap, 'Pure Love' is going No. 1 in Billboard next week'. I said, 'Good lord, how 'bout that, that's a big deal'. And he said, 'Yes, it is'. I cut that song in Studio A at RCA here in Nashville. I cut it on January 8, 1974, Elvis's birthday. Maybe that was my good luck charm. I cut two No. 1 records that day, 'Pure Love' and a Kris Kristofferson song called 'Please Don't Tell Me How The Story Ends'. We were being instructed by the head of RCA at that time, Jerry Bradley… and he said, 'Cut everything at Studio A, that's the best studio in the house'. I said, 'Well, what about Studio B?' And he said, 'That's Chet's studio (Chet Atkins)'. I want you to cut in Studio A 'cause apparently his dad and he had something going with the ownership of Studio A. I found the engineer that I liked and used him. I used to talk to Chet Atkins a lot about microphones and who sang on what and why Jim Reeves always got such a real, up-close sound and he said, 'Well, the engineer kept telling him to back off the mic, too much proximity effect'. And finally one day Jim had come into the studio and that engineer had passed away and nobody could make Jim back away from the mic anymore.

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About: Ronnie Milsap

Early Life & Rise to Fame (1963-1971)

Ronnie Milsap was born with a congenital defect, leaving him almost completely blind.

Soon after his very first birthday, he was cast off and given to his grandmother to raise. At the age of six, he was sent to the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he received a quality education and skills that would be beneficial to him for the rest of his life. Throughout the span of his childhood, he lost what vision he was born with. A rumor surfaced that he lost his sight because he had been punched in the face by the school's headmaster. Afterwards, his 'good eye' (along with the other) were both removed due to a developing blood clot. Throughout it all, he took refuge in music- particularly the late night broadcasts of country music, gospel, and rhythm and blues. He has often said that he was inspired by the likes of Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Patsy Cline as great influences.

When he was just seven, his instructors began to notice his musical talents; shortly afterwards, he began studying classical music foRonnie Milsapally. Within the next few years, he also grew a fond affection for rock and roll music and foRonnie Milsaped his very own rock band called 'The Apparitions'. Milsap was awarded a full college scholarship and attended college briefly in Atlanta, Georgia, until he decided to become a full-time musician. In the early 1960s, he got his first professional gig, as a member of J. J. Cale's band.

He released his first single, 'Total Disaster', in 1963. This was followed up by several Ashford & Simpson compositions, including 'Let's Go Get Stoned', which unfortunately for Milsap, was relegated to a B-side. A few months later, however, it became a million-selling single for the more popular Ray Charles. Around this same time, Milsap met and fell in love with a woman, Joyce, and the two were married in 1965.

Ronnie Missap with the legendary, Ray Charles
Ronnie Missap with the legendary, Ray Charles.

A few years later, after moving to Memphis, Tennessee, he frequently worked for Chips Moman. During this time period, he worked on numerous projects; including two songs with Elvis Presley. The first, 'Don't Cry Daddy', in 1969; and the second 'Kentucky Rain' [Released] in 1970. That same year, he enjoyed brief pop success with 'Loving You Is a Natural Thing'. He released his debut album, Ronnie Milsap, in 1971.

Breakthrough Success (1973-1975)

In 1973, Milsap moved to Nashville to pursue his dream of country music stardom. He later began working with Charley Pride's producer, Jack D. Johnson and was signed onto RCA Records that year. He released his first single from RCA that year called 'I Hate You', which became his first Country hit and also just breaking the Country Top 10. The next year, 1974, he had two #1 hits. His first was 'Pure Love' and then 'Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends'. In 1975, he revived the Don Gibson hit '(I'd Be) A Legend In My Time'.

That year, he scored another #1 hit with 'Daydreams About Night Things'. Milsap soon had a handful of Top tens, along with four #1 hits, that made him a star overnight.

It Was Almost Like a Song (1976-1978)

From 1976 to 1978, Ronnie Milsap scored seven #1 songs in a row. These included '(I'm a) Stand By My Woman Man' and 'What a Difference You've Made in My Life'. Yet the most significant in this string was 'It Was Almost Like a Song' of 1977, Milsap's first crossover hit. In addition to topping the Billboard country charts, the song was Milsap's first entry on the pop charts ever since 'Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends' peaked at #95; 'It Was Almost Like a Song', however, made it all the way to #16. It was also his first song to reach the Adult Contemporary Charts, stopping at #2. Despite its huge success, the song was Milsap's only crossover hit of the 1970s. However, he returned to the pop charts just four years later with great success. Meanwhile, Milsap would continue to achieve top hits on the country charts for the remainder of the 1970s.

Ronnie Missap with country superstar, Waylon Jennings
Ronnie Missap with country superstar, Waylon Jennings.

Crossover Success (1979-1992)

In 1979, Ronnie Milsap had a #1 hit, Top 5 hit and a Top 10 hit. Then in 1980, things would change a lot for him. From this point on and up until 1983, he scored a streak of eleven #1 hits in a row. His fourth and final one of that year was 'Smoky Mountain Rain', which helped cement his name in country music history as one of its most successful artists of all time. The following year this single peaked in the Top 40 on the pop charts. It also became the first of two Milsap songs to top the Adult Contemporary charts. Other crossover hits included the Top 5 pop hit '(There's) No Gettin' Over Me' and the Top 20 hits 'I Wouldn't Have Missed It For the World' and 'Any Day Now'. He also had some success with 'He Got You'.

Although the string of #1's came to an ebrupt end in 1983, the song which ended the streak- 'Stranger in My House'- was still very successful on all three charts; it peaked at #5 on the country charts, #23 on the pop charts, and #8 on the Adult Contemporary. Just a few months later, 'Don't You Know How Much I Love You' was released. It was this song that would be Milsap's last significant entry on the pop charts, stopping at #58.

However, it along with some other songs still became major hits on the Adult Contemporary charts.

Of these hit singles include 'Show Her', 'Still Losing You', and finally, 'Lost in the Fifties Tonight' in 1985.

Between 1985 and 1987, Milsap enjoyed a string of uninterrupted country #1 hits.

He enjoying his biggest success at this time.

The big #1 hits were 'She Keeps the Home Fires Burning', 'In Love', 'Snap Your Fingers', and 'Where Do the Nights Go', as other Country Pop singers were beginning to fade away from the Country Music charts.

In 1989, Milsap had his last #1 hit with 'A Woman in Love'. Although he had his last #1 hit, he still remained successful on the charts. Other Top Tens between 1989 and 1990 include 'Turn The Radio On' and 'Houston Solution'. In 1992, he had his last major hit, 'All Is Fair In Love and War'. The song just missed making the Top Ten, peaking at #11. By 1992, Milsap's chart success faded away, but he didn't stop touring the country. He has remained as one of Country Music's most popular concert attractions.

Ronnie Milsap auspiciously bridged the gap between country and pop in the early '80s, and his influence still permeates contemporary country music radio. In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview, Milsap, the dictionary definition of a crossover phenomenon, recalls meeting boyhood idol Elvis Presley and ultimately getting to play on the King of Rock and Roll's heralded 1969 comeback sessions at American Sound Studios in Memphis.

Then a struggling Motown-minded musician who had uprooted his family from their Atlanta home at the instigation of American Sound producer Chips Moman, Milsap was determined to make a name for himself in the bustling melting pot of Memphis. For four years, his strategy paid off considerably.

Steady session work at American Sound, a nightly gig at the trendy T.J'. s nightclub, and eye-popping encounters with music legends like John Fogerty and Isaac Hayes planted the seeds for the blind pianist's future stardom.

Fifty-three Top 40 country singles and 27 studio albums later, the gifted keyboard maestro shows no signs of slowing down, as he continues to record new material and tour whenever the mood strikes him.

Stick around as Milsap revisits his colorful Memphis past. Cutting 'Kentucky Rain' with Presley, playing two invitation-only New Year's Eve parties at T.J'. s, why he left the city for Nashville on the day after Christmas 1972, how he learned about Presley's shocking death, and a dilapidated World War II-era plane that nearly cost him his life merely scratch the surface.

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