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Nashville Scene Easy-Going Fellow

Milsap gives loose but solid show

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 4, 1997:  Fifteen minutes into his opening-night show at Caff Milano, Ronnie Milsap sat at his grand piano and talked about the difference between performing at large theaters and at small dinner clubs. "Part of the joy of doing this kind of show," Milsap told the standing-room-only crowd of 200, "is that we're not so predictable, I hope."

The veteran entertainer, whose repertoire includes 41 No. 1 country hits, turned toward his band and said, "I guess we can do just about anything we want." He chuckled, suggesting that winging it might also result in a few missed notes or jumbled transitions. Some of "the polish" might be wiped away, he explained, but he and his band were looking forward to the spontaneity and intimacy of their regular Monday-night shows at Caff Milano.

An hour later, as the crowd shouted and whistled and gave Milsap a standing ovation, it was apparent that the club's patrons had enjoyed seeing a well-known entertainer in such close quarters. Even with a smidgen of their polish removed, Milsap and his six-piece backing band put on a well-rehearsed, slick performance that blended the singer's love for '50s rock 'n' roll with a well-selected sampling of his hits.

In fact, the impromptu selections proved as memorable as Milsap's standards, which included "Smoky Mountain Rain" and "Stranger in My House." After his introductory speech, Milsap tore into a torrid, piano-rocking version of "Linda Lu," a nearly forgotten '50s rocker originally recorded by Ray Sharpe. The song revealed a rarely seen side of Milsap: He pounded the keys with an exciting roadhouse drive and rhythmic accuracy that recalled the work of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.

Later in the show, Milsap herded the band from behind their instruments--which included banks of synthesizers and a monstrously large drum set--to join him at the front of the stage for a few old-fashioned doo-wop songs. The group's a cappella versions of "Come and Go With Me" and "Youngblood" offered an entertaining diversion from the main set. The same was also true of background singer Rhonda Hampton's mid-set rendition of "Walkin' After Midnight." Her full, torchy voice proved up to the task, although it would be even more interesting to see her take on a song that hasn't been covered to death.

Blind since birth, when congenital glaucoma robbed him of his eyesight, Milsap was born in the Smoky Mountain hamlet of Robbinsville, N.C. At age 6, he was sent to the Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh. Life at the school included a harsh regimen of abuse and deprivation--which Milsap chronicled in his autobiography, Almost Like a Song--but it also forced him into an exacting study of violin and piano that ultimately gave him a ticket to a better life. He also found great refuge in the radio, one of the rare pleasures of his early years.

As he demonstrated during his Caff Milano show, Milsap owns a wide and varied musical palette--something he learned from listening to the radio as a child. "I grew up before radio was so formatted," he told the crowd; as a result, he heard a diversity of musical styles without ever changing the station. Through this exposure, Milsap developed a love for country, blues, R&B, pop, and rock. True to this musical breadth, his first hit was a 1965 pop song, "Never Had It So Good," that went on to be a top 10 R&B hit.

Later, Milsap became a respected Memphis session musician, backing Elvis Presley on "Kentucky Rain" and other songs. As a nightclub performer, he began traveling between Memphis and Nashville. Several top country performers loved Milsap's shows, and eventually he caught the attention of Music Row. For good reason too--as a vocalist and pianist, Milsap has few peers. He sings in a robust, expressive tone without adding the kind of overblown flourishes used by so many singers today. At the time, Milsap brought a refreshing sense of R&B dynamics to country music. His head-turning 1973 debut, Where My Heart Is, combined traditional honky-tonk songs by Merle Haggard, Dallas Frazier, and Doodle Owens with rhythmic fare that included a fine, original song ("I Hate You") cowritten with '60s soul great Dan Penn.

Over the years, Milsap has demonstrated a fine aptitude for picking songs of substance. But looking back at his country career, Milsap sometimes suffered from the overarching production techniques popular in Nashville during the '70s and early '80s. His stage style, which included rhinestone-studded formal wear and the trademark gold-and-glitter-framed sunglasses, certainly embodied the ornate tackiness of the era.

Gone is the glitter Ronnie Milsap. Photo by Jeff Sedik.

But at Caff Milano, with the sappy string sections stripped away, and with Milsap clad in a simple Western-styled shirt, the quality of his music was easier to discern. He surveyed his entire career, displaying an assurance that blended smooth professionalism with the right balance of emotional weight. In doing so, he conveyed why his songs continue to have more staying power than most country hits from the '70s.

Milsap grouped several fan favorites into a medley that managed not to insult the lyrics or the audience. He gave serious attention to the opening verses, and he let the songs go on a little longer than usual, hitting at least a couple of choruses of "It Was Almost Like a Song," "Stand By Your Woman Man," "Pure Love," and the wonderful "There Ain't No Gettin' Over Me" before moving onto the next familiar chord progression. Another highlight came with a prolonged "Lost in the Fifties Tonight," which included a few beautifully performed verses of "In the Still of the Night."

The night's most memorable moment came on the only new selection, a sensitive and moving version of Mickey Newbury's "The Future's Not What It Used to Be." It's a stunningly evocative song, packed with thoughtful reflection and a melancholy assessment of the world, and Milsap nailed it. The performance bodes well for the comeback album Milsap is currently recording for Warner Bros. Records with producer Rodney Crowell.

At one point in the evening, Milsap inadvertently addressed one of the problems inherent in putting on a dinner-show performance. Late in the show, as the restaurant's servers hurried away plates to facilitate a quick turnover for the second set, dishes began to crash and clang in the open kitchen behind club patrons. When a particularly loud collision of glass shattered the air, Milsap stopped and said with some concern, "Sounds like somebody got hit back there." He paused, and as another round of crashing plates rang out, he asked, "Is there a fight?" When no one answered, he joked, "Well, I used to play through a lot of those," and got back to the task at hand.

Throughout the night, the band proved both tight and professional. In addition to vocalist Hampton, the players included guitarist Jamie Brantley, drummer Rodney Evanston, bassist Warren Gower, and two keyboard-synthesizer players, Al Hampton and the august Jay Spell. They're a top-notch group, but their emphasis was on a generic, professional sound that primarily built dynamics around Milsap's voice and piano.

As Milsap continues to perform Mondays at Caff Milano through August, the singer will likely continue to loosen up and expand his show to include some unexpected songs as well as the expected favorites. It's a show that Milsap fans won't want to miss, and it just might convert a few skeptics into realizing why this talented performer has six Grammy Awards on his mantel.

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