Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Old Is New Again

Ronnie Dawson dresses up the rock-and-roll of the '50s for audiences of the '90s.

By Mark Jordan

APRIL 26, 1999:  The irony is that the English, the very people who helped stall his career more than 25 years ago, are also the ones who brought '50s rocker Ronnie Dawson back from obscurity.

"In 1986 I got a call from a fella in England who said, 'Do you realize that some of your songs are legendary over here in the rock-and-roll crowd?'" says Dawson, remembering the day British music collector Barney Koumis contacted him looking for recordings he could release in England.

Two years later Koumis put out the CD Still A Lot Of Rhythm -- made up of Dawson's '50s sides -- on his No Hit label, and Dawson, known to fans as the Blond Bomber, was ready to pick up his career where it had left off.

For all intents and purposes that career began in 1957 in Dallas. At the time, Dawson was an 18-year-old rocker from tiny Waxahachie, Texas. Back home he had grown up in a musical family that sang and played gospel, Texas swing, and the blues. But by the time little Ronnie first started picking at his guitar, rock-and-roll had arrived. With his group Ronnie Dee & the D Men, Dawson made a name for himself playing local dances. Now he was in Dallas to compete in the amateur portion of the Big D Jamboree, a local Grand Ole Opry-style radio show which early rockabilly legend Gene Vincent appeared on.

Dawson won that night and nine more after it, taking the Big D's grand prize of $100 and a management contract with Ed MacLemore, also Vincent's agent. Dawson cut two 45s, "Action Packed" and "Rockin' Bones." Following their success, he appeared to have it made when he signed with Swan Records, a label affiliated with radio kingpin Dick Clark. Then the payola scandal hit, forcing Clark to divest himself of involvement with the label, effectively killing the deal.

But it didn't keep Dawson from working. He joined the legendary Texas swing outfit the Lightcrust Doughboys (a band which gave both Bob Wills and Milton Brown their starts). And he began playing drums in studio sessions, eventually laying down the beats for such classics as Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby" and Paul and Paula's "Hey Paula."

In the early '60s, Dawson had one last stab at making it big when he cut a couple of R&B-tinged singles under the name Commonwealth Jones. Columbia Records liked the songs and put them into limited release to see how they'd do. But it was 1962, and American rock-and-roll was in a sad state. Elvis was in the army, Buddy Holly was dead, Chuck Berry was in jail, and Jerry Lee Lewis was in exile. And the sound that was now catching American teens' ears was coming from across the ocean.

"[The Commonwealth Jones records] got good reviews, but, you know, that was right before the Beatle thing all started to happen," Dawson says. "The whole rock-and-roll scene changed, particularly when the British invasion happened. And that was kind of weird because all it was was rock-and-roll back again. Of course, the Beatles took it further than that and went on to do some great things, I thought. But their early stuff was just rock-and-roll and not as good really as we were doing it."

Except for a few country singles released on Columbia in the late '60s, Dawson remained away from the limelight for more than 20 years. He began doing commercial jingle work, lending his voice to spots for Hungry Jack pancakes and Lonestar and Jax beer. And he never stopped playing in the Dallas area, performing in his own group and with the country-rock band Steelrail.

After the call from Koumis, Dawson started his career over in Europe, cutting his first complete albums and touring heavily. An acclaimed performance at a Carnegie Hall folk concert in 1994 exposed him to the now-growing ranks of rockabilly fans in America. Now Dawson has released More Bad Habits, his first album recorded in stereo and his first made expressly for an American audience. Though undeniably in the roots-rock vein, Dawson is proud of the fact that with this record -- which he describes as "modern" and "powerful" -- he continues to do what few '50s rock acts still performing will: update his sound.

"We're trying to reach a few more people with this record," Dawson says. "I'll probably lose a few purists on this one, but I can't help that. I'm always doing different things. It stays within the framework. You can't leave from the framework. But there's ways you can expand within the framework. A lot of people disagree with me on that, especially a lot of the purists. But I just think purist is a way of being lazy. Dig things the way they are and keep them the same way the whole time, I can't do that."

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