By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Ronnie Dawson, Dallas' legendary Blond Bomber, released his first single, "Action Packed" b/w "I Make the Love" in 1958, when he was 19 years old. Since then, he's gone from adored up-and-comer to hidden hero to comeback kid. During the 1960s and '70s, he bounced from one label to another and, for a while, from one genre from another until he returned home to rockabilly, which welcomed him back like the prodigal son he's always been. In fact, he's more popular and prolific than ever, having released six full-length albums and one career-spanning compilation since 1988. His latest disc isMore Bad Habits, released last year. What follows is an excerpt from his autobiography-in-progress. For now, its title will beWho is Ronnie Dawson?
American Bandstandhad spawned a lot of dance shows that used the Bandstandformat with kids dancing live every day on local TV. It was great exposure for record companies and artists. But I had traveled very little in my life, mostly with the Light Crust Doughboys, and that was mainly in Texas. I had never been closeto an airplane, much less flown on one. These were exciting times for Ronnie Dee.
The Eastern tour was confirmed, and I was scheduled to leave Dallas by plane during the first week of December 1959. As the departing date grew closer, things got exciting. There was a write-up in the hometown paper, the Waxahachie Daily Light News, and friends were wishing me well. Mom and Dad took me to town and bought me two new suits, a couple of ties, and two white dress shirts. Actually, it was just one suit with two pair of pants and a groovy gray-and-black-striped sport coat--well, as groovy as you could get in Waxahachie. I'm wearing the suit, and the black tie with gold sparkles in it, in several old publicity photos.
Man, I was set: Show me the people! I loaded two suitcases and a Fender Strat into "Doodle" Boyd's 1955 Chevy, and at 5 a.m. I got ready to depart for the first city on the trip--Detroit, Michigan. Are you kidding me? It was cold in Waxahachie, so you knewit was gonna be cold in Detroit! Doodle had volunteered to drive me to Love Field Airport for a 7 a.m. flight. I don't know what I would have done without the help of so many wonderful friends. It was still dark outside when we arrived at Love Field in Big D. Well, I'd never been to an airport of any kind, and Doodle and I didn't know where to go. We ended up driving to a hangar, because we saw airplanes sitting out there, but we thought it was strange they were all dark. A security guard showed up and told us we had taken a wrong turn at the front gate. Hell, we didn't know.
I finally got on the plane and, a couple of hours later, when we were landing in Chicago--where I had a layover before heading to Detroit--the pilot came over the speaker and said it was 3 degrees outside. I knew I didn't bring nearly enough warm clothes. When we finally got to Detroit, it was just as cold, and there was snow on the ground. I got off the plane, and there was a representative from my record distributor waiting for me. It wasn't hard for him to pick me out of the crowd: I was the bumpkin with the blond flattop and no coat. And I looked like I was about 14 years old.
He took me to my hotel, and I was all eyes: Man, this is Detroit! Home of the Ford. My label--Back Beat, owned by legendary record man Don Robey out of Houston--had scheduled me on a local dance show right away, so I went directly from the airport to the TV station, lip-synched "Action Packed" in front of the kids and cameras, and signed a few autographs. I hated lip-synching. You could barely hear your vocal track on the record, because for some reason, smaller TV stations just couldn't play the record very loud. But record distributors know how to work you: They will volunteer you for anything and everything--for free! They were all very nice to me, but it was all business.
From the TV station in downtown Detroit, we headed to the motel, where I had 30 minutes to freshen up a bit. I found out we were doing five record hops that night, so we would only have time for a quick meal before heading to Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, for the first one. Record hops were great promotional gigs that took place in school gymnasiums and auditoriums and, on occasion, youth centers. Local DJs became heroes at these gigs. They made stars of guys like Alan Freed, Dick Clark, and, later, "Wolfman" Jack. These local DJs would promote the gigs on their radio shows, and artists such as myself--and those much bigger than I was--would perform for nothing, all in the name of promotion. Years later, there would be much written about the payola scandals of the late 1950s and early '60s--they would eventually be the undoing of Alan Freed--but it all appeared so innocent at first. Soon enough, it became sinister: It turned out labels were paying DJs to play their records. But it was all happening so fast for me that I didn't have time to think about that, much less question it.