Ronnie Dawson was one of the few original rockabillies to rise from obscurity and produce better music in his later years than he did during the 1950s. A close listen to his recorded catalog reveals a roots artist who did everything with taste and fire. As a teenager he chanted rockabilly with a strong bluesy undercurrent; as an adult he effortlessly alternated between blues, countrified western swing, and flat out rock 'n' roll, charging each genre with energy and instrumental flash. Although never a full-fledged star, he enjoyed a solid international reputation as a must-see performer, and his re-emergence from history's shadows added an extra layer of romance to the myth of the rockabilly cult hero.
Ronnie Dawson grew up in Texas, where his father, Pinkie Dawson, was the bass-playing bandleader of the western swing outfit the Manhattan Merrymakers. When it came time to support a family, Dawson's father came off the road, sold his bass, and made a living as the proprietor of a local gas station. Although he had given up his profession, Pinkie Dawson still loved music, and he taught young Ronnie the basics of playing mandolin, bass, drums, and guitar. Another influence came from Dawson's mother, Gladys, who sang in the racially mixed Assembly of God church choir. It was there that the youngster saw his first electric guitar and felt the spiritual beat behind the burgeoning rock 'n' roll movement of the 1950s.
Like Jerry Lee Lewis before him, young Ronnie attended the Southern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas. As opposed to Lewis, who was expelled for sneaking boogie-woogie into hymns, Dawson was kicked out for smoking cigarettes—a habit he would eschew in later years. After he returned home to attend public school, some friends talked him into entering a talent contest put on by a local chapter of the Future Farmers of America. "All that time I had been a wall-flower," he was quoted as saying in the Rockin' Bones CD liner notes. "I still remember their faces today—as soon as I got the guitar, I just started jumping around. They'd never seen anything like it. That was the start of it."
A Star on the Big D Jamboree
Rockabilly, as personified by Elvis Presley, Mac Curtis, Sonny Fisher, and Sid King & The Five Strings, had already proven popular with Texas teenagers long before Dawson formed his first band in 1956. Indeed, every country package show and radio broadcast in the area included a rockabilly performer to attract teenaged fans. It was in this environment that Dawson, who had been picking up on R&B by the Clovers and the Dominoes, formed his own group and made a bid to appear on the talent show portion of the popular Big "D" Jamboree. "The Big D Jamboree was the place to go to play any kind of music, but it was more of a country show, like Louisiana Hayride," Dawson explained to the Phoenix New Times in 1995. "If you won the contest ten times, you were invited to be a regular on the program, and they would offer you a recording contract. They did what they said. I won ten times, and in three months, I was looking at a record with my name on it."
Billed as Ronnie Dee & The D-Men, Dawson raved up Johnny Dollar's "Action Packed" for the R&B-oriented Back Beat label. Despite a lengthy promotional tour filled with regional TV guest shots and Alan Freed package shows, "Action Packed" garnered only isolated pockets of airplay around the country. However, that single, along with Dawson's 1959 release "Rockin' Bones," would furnish rockabilly archivists of a later era with a solid argument that some of the genre's best practitioners had been unfairly overlooked. The problem, however, may have been one of originality as well as the changing climate of popular music. On Dragon Street's 2000 compilation The Big "D" Jamboree Live, Volumes 1 & 2, Dawson can be heard burning through renditions of Chuck Berry's "30 Days" and "Johnny B. Goode." This was fine danceable work that went over well with the crowd, but it was not enough to make anyone forget Chuck Berry.
Nicknamed the "Blonde Bomber" because of his platinum blonde crew cut, Dawson's unchanged voice immediately identified him as a juvenile to teenage listeners of the Jamboree. As a result, when the venerable western swing group the Lightcrust Doughboys were looking for a member with some youth appeal, they enlisted Ronnie Dawson. "I was their teenage star when I went with the Doughboys, because they played a lot of schools and things like this," Dawson recalled on music historian Richie Unterberger's website. "They wanted me to go on for the young people, because at that time country music was way dead." Very soon, however, Dawson's style of rock 'n' roll would also be passé, and the singer-guitarist would have to pursue other musical avenues.
Recorded for Dick Clark's Swan Label
For a time Dawson and Gene Vincent shared the same manager, which allowed the younger singer to witness the sad decline of Vincent's American career. Rock 'n' roll had given way to teen-oriented pop by 1960 and Dawson, with his boyish voice and platinum blonde crew cut, seemed to fit that image well. Signing with Dick Clark's Swan label, he cut two unrepentantly pop sides: "Summer's Comin'," and "Hazel," which hit number one in Pittsburgh. Both were plugged lip-synch style on Clark's TV show American Bandstand. In later years Dawson would disown the singles, but he always noted that they might have been national hits had the payola scandals not forced Clark to divest himself of his non-Bandstand holdings.
Dawson returned to Texas and began playing drums on sessions for producer Major Bill Smith, most notably Bill Channel's "Hey Baby" and Paul & Paula's "Hey Paula." He also began recording under various guises, as Johnny and the Jills for Do-Boy, and Snake Monroe (later Commonwealth Jones), for Columbia. The former recordings, while not successful, showcased an impressive blues attitude and featured the harmonica work of a young Delbert McClinton.
Hoping to capitalize on the early to mid-1960s folk boom, which incorporated a lot of blues and bluegrass, Dawson joined a Dallas-based group called the Levee Singers. Recording for Maverick and their own Levee label, the group proved popular enough to warrant guest appearances on such network TV shows as the Danny Kaye Show, Jimmy Dean Show, Hollywood Palace, and Hootenanny. Primarily a banjo-dominated sing-along band, the group's popularity had ebbed by the end of the decade.
King of the Survival Revival
During the early 1970s, Dawson formed Steel Rail, a progressive country-rock band in the style of Buffalo Springfield, which kept him working Southwestern clubs for more than a decade. Smartly, he supplemented his income playing a "good ol' boy" on commercial jingles for Hungry Jack biscuits, Aunt Jemima pancakes, Jax Beer, and Cici's Pizza.
Meanwhile, the death of Elvis Presley had inspired a renewed interest in the surviving rockabilly founders. The Punkabilly group The Cramps recorded a version of Dawson's "Rockin' Bones," which stimulated others to seek out his vintage work. This revival of interest resulted in the reissue of many of Dawson's old recordings, as well as his first-ever tour of England in 1986. "At that point in my life, I was so ready to get out of Dallas," Dawson told the Phoenix New Times in 1998. "I was really ready to go, and I just blew up when I got over there.… I couldn't believe it. All these people started embracing me. I was in heaven. I didn't want to go home."
Suddenly, Dawson was in demand. He began recording new material for Koumis's No Hit label, which was leased to Crystal Clear, an American independent. Sporting gruffer, more authoritative vocals and a snarling guitar style, Dawson sounded purer and wilder than any of his contemporaries from the 1950s, and he put on a more energetic show. Fans worldwide began to call him the King of Rockabilly's Survival Revival.
For the Record …
Born Ronald Monroe Dawson on August 11, 1939, in Dallas, TX; died on September 30, 2003, in Dallas, TX; son of Pinkie (a western swing musician) and Gladys Dawson; married Chris, 1996.
Formed rock 'n' roll band Ronnie Dee & The D-Men, 1957; recorded for Backbeat and Rockin' Records, 1958; recorded teen-oriented material for Dick Clark's Swan label and appeared on Clark's American Band stand, 1960; sporadically toured with Light Crust Doughboys, 1957-60; recorded as Commonwealth Jones for Columbia and Do-Boy Records, 1961-62; played drums on Paul & Paula's hit "Hey Paula," 1963; performed with Levee Singers, 1960s; formed country rock group Steelrail, 1970s; recorded jingles for Jax beer, Hungry Man Biscuits, and other products, 1970s-80s; recorded for the No Hit and Crystal Clear labels, 1990-96; recorded album for Rounder affiliate Upstart, 1996; final album for Yep Roc, 1999.
Awards: Inducted into Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 1998.
Never a full-fledged rockabilly, Dawson imbued hard shades of the blues, rhumba, country, and toughedged garage rock into his albums for No Hit, Upstart, and Yep Roc. The resulting mix drew raves from fans, and his live shows inspired converts, even at such normally staid venues as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Good humored and approachable, he also proved to be a mentor for up-and-coming acts, and guested on albums by Boz Boorer and the Frantic Flattops. The icing on his cake came with the inclusion of several of his Yep Roc recordings in the movies Primary Colors and Simpatico.
Just as his career began to yield significant returns, health problems began to dog Dawson; cancer of the tongue required rest and chemotherapy. The indefatigable performer often worked despite his illness, earning the admiration of both fans and fellow performers. In February of 2003, doctors told him that the cancer had spread to his lungs. It was a death sentence for one of rock 'n' roll's most irrepressible figures. "Don't feel sorry for me, man," he told Thor Christensen of the Dallas Morning News. "Last year was the first time I was ever in a hospital. Sixty-three years of quality life … are you kidding? I'm celebrating." Ronnie Dawson died on September 30, 2003.
"Action Packed," Backbeat, 1958.
"Rockin' Bones," Rockin', 1959.
"Ain't That a Kick in the Head," Swan, 1959.
(As Johnny and the Jills) "Poor Little Johnny Smith," Do-Boy, 1960.
(As Commonwealth Jones) "Do Do Do," Columbia, 1961.
(As Commonwealth Jones) "Jump & Run," Banner, 1962.
(With the Levee Singers) "Riders in the Sky," Levee, 1962.
Still a Lot of Rhythm, No Hit, 1988.
Rockinitis (live), No Hit/Crystal Clear, 1989.
Rockin' Bones, No Hit/Crystal Clear, 1990.
Monkey Beat!, Crystal Clear, 1994.
Rockin' Bones—The Legendary Masters, Crystal Clear, 1996.
Just Rockin' & Rollin', Upstart, 1996.
More Bad Habits, Yep Roc, 1999.
(With various artists) The Big "D" Jamboree Live, Volumes 1&2, Dragon Street, 2000.
Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Go: Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Dallas Morning News, October 1, 2003, p. 7B.
Kicks, No. 6, 1988.
"Awesome Dawson," Phoenix New Times, http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/issues/1997-03-13/music4.html/print.html (March 13, 2004).