The Late, Great

Ronnie Dawson proved there are indeed second acts in rock and roll

Three years ago, Ronnie Dawson allowed the Dallas Observer to excerpt his autobiography-in-progress ("A Legend in the Making," November 23, 2000); its working title was Who is Ronnie Dawson? On September 30, its title became, sadly, past tense, when the rockabilly pioneer forever known as the Blond Bomber succumbed to throat cancer at the age of 64. His passing was not unexpected--he had been diagnosed a year ago and only recently decided to discontinue ineffective treatment--but still comes as a blow; only days ago, his wife, Chris, sent an e-mail with the news that Ronnie was "doing quite well." Those who saw him in his final days found a shadow of the exuberant performer they had known for years; he was unable to hold even brief conversations and would fade in and out. But, as one musician said in an e-mail last week, on occasion he could still "summon that RD spirit," which was as infectious as a newborn's grin.

Last Sunday, Dawson's family, friends and fellow musicians gathered at the Sons of Hermann Hall to look at old photos of Ronnie, share their memories and say their reluctant farewells. Chris, who Ronnie had once told me "came to my rescue" when they were married in 1996, had chosen to play jazz over the sound system; it was his favorite music, more so than even the rockabilly that made him a legend. Dawson didn't much like funerals, so there wasn't one. Instead, his ashes, collected in an ornate black container, were perched on the stage, in between his acoustic and electric guitars--one last appearance for the Bomber at the Sons, where he had performed dozens of times since his artistic rebirth in the late 1980s.

Below are the liner notes I wrote for the U.S. release of Dawson's 1989 album Rockinitis, the second album he made upon discovering that England still adored him even if America had forgotten about him. Reissued in 1995, it was among several albums he cut in the '80s and '90s, long after his teenage heyday as the crew-cut kid who knocked 'em wild and socked 'em silly at the Big D Jamboree or on the New York-based television show hosted by legendary disc jockey Alan Freed. They were all minor masterpieces of unadorned rock and roll, most made on instruments and with equipment created at the dawn of pop music: 1988's Still a Lot of Rhythm, Monkey Beat in '94, Just Rockin' & Rollin' in '96 and More Bad Habits in '98. These notes have been edited to include some things Dawson said to this paper after the album's release, but they remain in the present tense. It will take more than a little thing like death to make Ronnie Dawson a thing of the past.

There was no one better than Ronnie Dawson, onstage or off.
James Bland
There was no one better than Ronnie Dawson, onstage or off.
Ronnie Dawson never wanted to perform in public until a friend forced him to.
Francis Photographers
Ronnie Dawson never wanted to perform in public until a friend forced him to.

Rock-and-roll heroes are hard to come by. They're a myth, actually, because just when you begin to worship an idol they let you down or die. Rock-and-roll heroes are the porcelain figures of the stage--one false step and they shatter into a million pieces, right in front of you.

But there's one man who wears the label with ease, who defines the term with grace--Ronnie Dawson. "You have to go away before you can come back," Dawson once said. These were the words of experience, spoken by a man who went away for decades only to return as a conquering hero well into his 50s. He was a man who seemed to age backward.

Raised in Waxahachie, the Ronnie Dawson of the 1990s is a man only now beginning to receive his due, only now beginning to taste the fame that should have come his way 40 years ago. Dawson, at 56, is a bigger star than he ever was during his so-called heyday of the mid-1950s. He overcame rockabilly's quick rise and even quicker fall to become its greatest champion decades later.

Dawson thought his career over long before most musicians even begin theirs. He was a 16-year-old kid boppin' on the stage of the Big D Jamboree, which was then run by Gene Vincent's--and, for a while, Ronnie Dawson's--manager, Ed McLemore. Dawson took to that stage filled with the cockiness of youth and the pride of the talented. In old photos from the 1950s, Dawson looks like a kid at a talent show, wearing a grown-up's suit and a young boy's smile. He sang congratulations to himself, so sure he was a star.

Dawson scored a fairly big regional hit in 1958 with "Action Packed"/"I Make the Love"--for which he was billed as Ronnie Dee, the teenage boy with a high-pitched voice to match his young age. He then hit the road for tours with Vincent and other lesser-known artists such as Buddy Knox, Gene Summers, Ray Campi and Scotty McKay.

In 1961, Dawson signed to Columbia Records using yet another name. Commonwealth Jones was his moniker, and he was billed as black singer on such songs as "Do Do Do" and "Who's Been Here." He was summarily dropped from Columbia, but eight years later was re-signed to the label by legendary country producer Billy Sherrill, who had Dawson record two more singles for Columbia. He would also play drums on such hits as Paul and Paula's "Hey Paula" and Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby," as well as appear on American Bandstand and Hootenanny. After he was cut loose from Columbia once more, Dawson came back to Dallas and started a country-rock band called Steel Rail, which lasted from 1970 to the early '80s.

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