One of the biggest names in country music during the 1970s and 1980s, Ronnie Milsap was a multi-Grammy winner for such rootsy, soulful hits as "It Was Almost Like a Song," "(There's) No Getting Over Me" and "Stranger in My House," as well as 33 other chart-topping country singles. A gifted vocalist who could adapt to nearly any musical type, Milsap's versatility granted him access to the pop and adult contemporary charts as well, granting him crossover status for the better part of two decades. Though his chart hits ran dry at the dawn of the 1990s, Milsap's vast library of hits, which included 35 No. 1 country singles, kept his music in the public consciousness, as well as a popular concert attraction for audiences across the United States. Milsap's talent for recognizing and interpreting quality songs for multiple audiences made him one of the most accomplished popular music artists for over four decades.
Born Ronnie Lee Milsap on Jan. 16, 1943 in Robbinsville, NC, he was diagnosed at birth with congenital glaucoma, which left him almost completely blind. Raised by his father and grandparents after his parents' divorce, Milsap was sent to the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, where he developed a fascination for music through the late-night radio broadcasts of country, gospel and R&B that flourished throughout the South. Eventually, he parlayed his interest into studying classical music and performance, quickly mastering an impressive array of instruments, including violin, guitar and piano. In high school, he performed rock-n-roll with a group called the Apparitions before accepting a full scholarship to study law at Young Harris College in Atlanta, GA. However, Milsap soon left school to pursue his musical career, which began in earnest as a member of J.J. Cale's band in the early 1960s.
Milsap struck out on his own in 1963, releasing a debut single, "Total Disaster," which performed well on Atlanta radio. With a few years, he had signed to Scepter Records, for which he recorded a Top 5 R&B single with the Valerie Ashford and Nick Simpson song "Never Had it so Good." Subsequent releases failed to repeat this initial success, prompting Milsap to relocate to Memphis, TN, where he found regular work as a session musician for producer Chips Moman, as well as the Elvis Presley singles "Don't Cry Daddy" (1969) and "Kentucky Rain" (1970). That same year, Milsap scored another pop hit with "Loving You is a Natural Thing," which spurred him to relaunch his solo career. However, his eponymous debut album (1971) for Warner Bros., failed to find listeners. His fortunes improved after a chance encounter with singer Charley Pride, who suggested that he try his hand at country music. Milsap soon signed with Pride's manager, Jack D. Johnson, who brokered a contract with RCA Victor. His first single for the label, "I Hate You," was an immediate Top 10 hit on the country charts in 1973. It was soon eclipsed by a trifecta of No. 1s, including a Grammy-winning cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends" and Don Gibson's "(I'd Be) A Legend in My Time," all released in 1974.
Milsap was soon one of the biggest country acts of the 1970s, earning seven No. 1 singles in a row, including the Grammy winner (I'm a) Stand By My Woman Man" (1976) and "It Was Almost Like a Song" (1977), which also marked his first appearance on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the adult contemporary chart. He was soon a fixture in the country and pop worlds, reaching the top of the Adult Contemporary charts with 1980's "Smoky Mountain Rain" before earning his first Top 5 pop single with the Grammy-winning "(There's) No Getting Over Me" (1981) and two Top 20s with "I Wouldn't Have Missed it for the World" (1981) and a 1982 cover of the Chuck Jackson soul ballad "Any Day Now," all of which also topped the country charts. His final crossover hit, "Stranger in My House" (1983), marked his last significant entry onto the pop charts, though subsequent singles, including "Don't You Know How Much I Love You" (1985) and the Grammy winner "Lost in the Fifties Tonight" (1985) continued to mine gold on the country and adult contemporary charts. Milsap remained a powerhouse in those genres until the end of the decade, when he landed his final No. 1 country hit with "A Woman in Love" (1989).
Milsap's fortunes in country declined with the dawn of the 1990s; after hitting No. 11 with 1992's "All is Fair in Love and War," he failed to generate any further Top 10 country hits. He soon left RCA for Liberty, where he landed a Top 30 country hit in 1993 with the title track to True Believer, his first record for the label. Despite the drop-off in chart hits, Milsap remained an exceptionally popular concert attraction, which allowed him to experiment with his sound in the ensuing decades. He released an album of jazz standards called Just for a Thrill in 2004, then tried his hand at gospel with Then Sings My Soul in 2009. That same year, he earned headlines for a protest at the Capitol Records offices over the company allegedly reneging on its promise to promote "My First Ride," a duet with Trace Adkins that was intended to benefit firefighters and police officers throughout North America. Two years later, he returned to traditional country with 2011's Country Again.
By Paul Gaita