The Late, Great

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

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, who aged gracelessly and embraced anonymity by taking mundane day jobs and beginning families, Dawson never abandoned the music business. He merely took refuge in the faceless side of music, working as a studio sideman and recording jingles around Dallas. He'd also get the occasional gig working private parties for corporations, playing '50s rock-and-roll nostalgia for people who had never heard of the Blond Bomber and were uninterested in and ignorant of his past triumphs.

Dawson, had he played by the rules of this game created by and for younger men, should have ended his career there and become a musician for hire--nothing more or less. Then the Cramps covered his version of "Rockin' Bones" on 1981's Psychedelic Jungle, adding just a taste of recognition in the modern rock world. But it was a call in 1986 from Barney Koumis, an English record collector who ran the No Hit Records label, that rescued Ronnie Dawson from the jingle business and obscurity.

Koumis, over a trans-Atlantic phone line, told Dawson his older songs were still getting played in England, where passed-over American music can still find its second and third life. He said there was an untapped market overseas for songs like "Congratulations to Me" and "Action Packed," and he wanted to know if Dawson had any of his other old songs archived so they could be released on a collection abroad.

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.

At first Dawson was skeptical, but finally agreed to the disc that would become No Hit's Rockin' Bones, a collection of the rockabilly idol's earliest songs. Dawson would eventually travel to England to perform; he found himself in a bizarre time warp where rockers still wore their hair slicked back and their women still wore poodle skirts, where tough guys still carried their smokes rolled in the sleeves of white T-shirts and where rockabilly wasn't a lost music but a vital art form. Dawson's career hadn't died, it had just hopped a plane to the U.K.

Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Dawson began the slow crawl down the comeback path. He released two albums in England, 1988's Still a Lot of Rhythm and 1989's Rockinitis. Still a Lot of Rhythm would see release in the States in 1994 when it was tacked onto the end of Dawson's astonishing Monkey Beat! CD (released first on No Hit, and then picked up for domestic distribution by Dallas' Crystal Clear Sound). The album proved that Dawson was the comeback kid not even into his prime yet, sounding like Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent action-packed into one eternally young body.

Rockinitis would remain a hard-to-find artifact; its release was vital, as it filled in the gaps and sounded ageless. Those who once dismissed rockabilly as the only pure genre because its flame was extinguished long before it ever roared never heard Ronnie Dawson, never experienced a man whose sound bridges Texas' country blues past and its rock-and-roll future. Dawson's music on Rockinitis--and his other albums, old and new--is rockabilly by way of the blues, embodying the rock tradition and transcending the rockabilly definition.

His music goes back further into the source material and provides a deeper understanding of what made rockabilly such a forceful entity during its brief existence. Dawson knows the verities, he even helped create them, but refuses to acknowledge the expiration date on the side of the carton. The bluesy "Bad Mouthin'," sandwiched between the rave-ups "Knock Down Drag Out" and "The Cats Were Jumpin'," is only one such example of Ronnie's range and the depth of his passion. His voice dips and moans, growls and groans, and he fills in the spaces with a deep guitar sound that was born in the country and defiled in the city.

Many of the songs on Rockinitis survived the record's past obscurity, becoming standards in Dawson's live set. "Shim Sham Shimmy," "The Worryin' Kind" and "Knock Down Drag Out" send the audience swingin' and jumpin' whether they're experiencing Dawson in a renovated old juke joint, a trendy Deep Ellum nightclub or in the middle of a Borders Books and Music outlet (certainly one of his odder gigs in 40-plus years). They are haunting in some places (listen to the guitar on "Rockin' the Cemetery"), jivin' in others (the title track, "Shim Sham Shimmy"), too perfect and powerful to be dismissed as novelty or nostalgia.

Speaking to the Observer, former Blaster and roots-rock purist Dave Alvin offered his most sincere compliments in Dawson's direction: "He's something else," Alvin said. "One of the best shows I ever saw by anyone was Ronnie Dawson. Forget it. That was the best rockabilly show I ever saw, and it's in the top 10 of all-time best shows I ever saw. You had that feeling that this is exactly what it friggin' felt like then, and this is exactly what it sounds like now."

And therein lies the perfect description of Ronnie Dawson--a man for whom time stood still, even if he has not. He's as timeless as his music, no wax work in a rock-and-roll mausoleum but a living embodiment of all that was good about rock and roll in its infancy and all that is great about it 40 years later.

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