HOPE, Ark.—With 40 chart-topping hits and a musical style that won fans by fusing country with pop and R&B, Ronnie Milsap has built a mighty career.
North Carolina-born Milsap comes to Hempstead Hall at the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope for a concert Friday, April 28, starting at 7 p.m.
He'll bring his band with him, Milsap still touring at the age of 74. "I love playing with my band. It's a great thrill. Got the right band, got the right crew," the singer said.
For Milsap, who was raised by his grandmother and then attended the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, where he flashed and developed his musical talents, playing live is still where it's at.
"This show down in Hope, we're ready to roll," Milsap said, noting he sometimes has a set list, but a lot of the time they'll just open it up and ask the audience what they want to hear.
"The audience plays a big role in a show. They always do," the singer said. "We get feedback from them and it makes us better than we thought we might be on that night." Classic Milsap hits like "I Wouldn't Have Missed it for the World" are what the audiences want to hear.
Before making it big as a country solo artist in the 1970s, Milsap played on the Elvis song "Kentucky Rain." He also scored an R&B hit with a song written by Ashford and Simpson, "Never Had it So Good." Then in the mid-70s, his chart-topping country hits started.
Expect him to play his chart-toppers during his concert in Hope. Recent years saw him inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the release of a 21-CD package collection of his RCA albums.
Milsap's been working on a new album, too, which he says has been going on too long, it seems. "But it will get done eventually," he said. It will have duets with folks like Willie Nelson.
"We're cooking right along and it's going to be fine," Milsap said, noting he hopes it's out soon. He'll be back in the studio working on it in a few days.
For years, he studied classical music as a youngster, learning various instruments and finding great success with the piano. He had a rock band called The Apparitions for a while and later attended Young Harris College in Georgia.
A meeting with Ray Charles while Milsap was only a teen proved to be inspirational. He wound up in the great performer's dressing room, whereupon Milsap told Charles he was the "high priest" and that he, too, wanted to be a professional musician, against the advice of others who urged him to stay in school.
According to Milsap, Charles' advice was: "Be around it and soak it up every day." He took that as affirmation and later even got to perform with him, backs touching as they played the piano.
"We just had a really wonderful time," Milsap recalled about his relationship with Charles. A portion of his show is done in memory of that legendary musician.
"He said, 'Son, if the music is in you it's got to come out,'" Milsap recalled. Another great singer who encouraged Milsap was Charley Pride, who urged him to focus on country music. After that, Milsap moved to Nashville and then partnered with Pride's manager before later signing to RCA.
Milsap doesn't recall ever performing in Hope, Ark., before, but he knows it's where Bill Clinton's from and knows the famous Klipsch speakers made here. In fact, Klipsch speakers are part of his home entertainment system, he said.
"They're made in Arkansas, so that's a good thing," Milsap said.
(Tickets: $45, $35 and $20. To purchase tickets, visit HempsteadHall.com or call 870-722-8565.)