Flashback: See Ray Charles and Ronnie Milsap’s Back-to-Back Duet
In 1983, as the Country Music Association celebrated its 25th anniversary, country music was at an interesting crossroads, with bluegrass and traditional honky-tonk material, for instance, finding their way back to mainstream country radio. Still, those roots of the genre had to compete with the polished, pop-leaning “Nashville Sound” that was just taking hold in 1958 when the CMA was founded.
To commemorate the anniversary, the CMA board launched a year-long multimedia campaign that included the taping of an all-star concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., attended by President Reagan, the First Lady, Vice President Bush and Mrs. Bush, other political dignitaries, and a who’s who of country artists. In all, more than 40 country acts appeared on the 90-minute special, which aired April 13th, 1983, on CBS. Among those who pop up during the special’s end credits: Eddy Arnold, Minnie Pearl, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Ricky Skaggs, Anne Murray, Tammy Wynette and the Oak Ridge Boys. (Watch the clip above.)
In a segment introduced by Opry legend Roy Acuff, the bridge between rhythm and blues, country and pop music was spotlighted with a dynamic performance from two of country music’s most soulful entertainers, future Country Music Hall of Fame member Ronnie Milsap and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame icon Ray Charles, whose 1962 LP Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music had the R&B legend covering the songs of Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold and Don Gibson, among others. It was, in fact, Gibson who would write songs that both Charles and Milsap would record and score two of their biggest hits, albeit a decade apart. For Charles, the plaintive “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was a 1962 Number One pop hit for five weeks, and in 1974, Milsap took the heartache of “A Legend in My Time” to the top of the country chart in 1974. The track was his third hit — and third consecutive Number One — that year.
Charles, who overcame not only the prejudices and misconceptions associated with his blindness but also with his race both before and after the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties, was one of Milsap’s inspirations musically and personally. Although he had received 12 years of classical music training at the Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina, counselors there discouraged Milsap from pursuing a music career. Leaving Raleigh to attend a Ray Charles concert, Milsap got the encouragement he needed when he met his idol backstage.
“His pilot got me into his dressing room,” the singer tells Rolling Stone Country. “I was sitting in there playing Ray’s piano when he comes in. I said, ‘Mr. Ray Charles, you are truly the high priest. I’ve got all your records. I love all your music. I want to become a professional musician.’ He said, ‘Play me something.’ So I did and he said, ‘It sounds to me like your heart is really into music, and if that is the case then you ought to become a professional musician.'”
Seated back to back at their respective pianos, the two musicians trade compliments and good-natured jokes before launching into the medley of Gibson hits: “Oh, Lonesome Me,” “A Legend in My Time” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” During the last song, Charles interrupts Milsap with, “Wait a minute, that sounds kind of familiar to me here. Let me grab a line.” Throughout the remainder of the performance, the pair swap lines, coaxing a smile from First Lady Nancy Reagan before closing with a reprise of “Oh, Lonesome Me.”
In 1984, Charles recorded the collaborative Friendship LP, featuring duets with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, George Jones and the Oak Ridge Boys. It would be the legendary entertainer’s only Number One country album. Charles died in 2004. A year later, the Genius and Friends album was issued, featuring his live duet with Willie Nelson on the Harlan Howard-penned “Busted.”