Ronald Monroe “Ronnie” Dawson, rockabilly singer, songwriter, and guitarist, was born in Waxahachie, Texas, on August 11, 1939, the son of bandleader and bass player Pinky Dawson (of the Manhattan Merrymakers) and Gladys Dawson. Ronnie Dawson's musical career, based almost entirely in Texas, spanned from his early teenage years at the Waxahachie Southwestern Bible Institute to the months before his death from throat cancer in 2003. At the time of his death, he was considered an elder statesman, if not a legend, in the blues, rockabilly, and country roots rock-and-roll genres.
Although Dawson was raised in a family with a primarily fundamentalist Pentecostal faith, musical talent ran a close parallel. Dawson stated that although he did not see a movie until he was seventeen, he found himself with a guitar in hand at around age fourteen. In addition to guitar, Dawson's (now musically retired) father Pinky showed him how to play the mandolin, drums, and bass guitar. Dawson attended Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie but was expelled for smoking cigarettes.
Ronnie Dawson's freshman act was called Ronnie Dee and the D Men and featured his soaring tenor vocals combined with a stand-out guitar sound based in rhythmic rock-and-roll with a hint of R&B, which was all the teenage rage in 1956. Within two months of its inception, the band Ronnie Dee and the D Men hesitantly entered a talent contest for a spot on the popular and long-standing Dallas live radio show, Big D Jamboree. Their ten wins in a row earned the young band multiple appearances on the variety show, which aired from Dallas's Sportatorium, a legendary wrestling arena and music venue.
Ronnie Dee and the D Men were soon signed by Sportatorium owner and Jamboree promoter Ed McLemore, manager for Gene Vincent, who was an occasional performer on the Big D Jamboree. With his assistance, the band soon recorded their first single on the Back Beat label, a subsidiary of Duke Records—“Action Packed” b/w “I Make the Love.” Radio play for “Action Packed” and their next single (“Rockin' Bones” on the McLemore label) gained steady ground, along with Dawson's reputation for giving an electric, acrobatic live performance that could challenge even the fiery young Elvis Presley. Incidentally, Dawson has claimed that his style of performance was taken not from Presley but directly from the dynamic Pentecostal revivals that he still attended.
In addition to his musical performance skills, Ronnie Dawson cut a compelling figure onstage; also nicknamed “The Blonde Bomber,” he was tall and lanky with a trademark blond flat-top haircut and a wide, mischievous grin. More recording and television appearance offers arrived in swift succession.
Before long, star-maker Dick Clark signed the burgeoning young group to his Swan Records label and confirmed them for an appearance on American Bandstand. Unfortunately, they had arrived on the scene at the cusp of the “Payola” scandal. The surrounding hullabaloo cut short all their musical plans and what would have been perceived as their shot at “the big time.” Clark closed the Swan Records label.
Undaunted, Ronnie Dawson continued his musical career with the help of some of his new connections. After the inevitable breakup of the D Men, Dawson toured as a featured guitarist with legendary Texas western-swing act the Light Crust Doughboys. He also employed his drumming skills for studio sessions for some of Major Bill Smith’s recording artists at the time, such as Paul and Paula on their hit “Hey Paula” and Bruce Channel on “Hey! Baby” (also featuring Delbert McClinton on harmonica).
From 1959 to 1961 Ronnie Dawson recorded on several other labels, and, in the tradition of many artists of the era, reinvented himself under new musical personae with several recording pseudonyms. He briefly signed with Columbia Records in 1961 and released the single “Do Do Do” under the name Commonwealth Jones. Dawson also used the name Snake Munroe. He commented in a late 1980s interview on radio show The Hound on Jersey City-based station WFMU that he chose “Snake Munroe” as a pseudonym on Columbia because of his middle name (Monroe) and because he thought that the name “Snake” sounded cool. ”Do Do Do” made waves in the R&B radio play circuit; Dawson said that Columbia was even under the impression that he was a black artist and attempted to market it as such. However, even with the heavy airplay, “Do Do Do” didn't sell enough copies to propel Dawson to further musical success.
The early 1960s marked a transition in Dawson's life both musically and personally. He began a strict health regimen that he maintained for the duration of his lifetime; he also joined popular Dallas-based singing group the Levee Singers which, as the folk movement gained speed, experienced considerable success on nationwide television shows such as Hootenanny and The Danny Kaye Show. Throughout the 1960s, Dawson stayed in the Dallas area and worked with the Levee Singers until musical trends and other transitions had him beginning a new country-rock band called Steel Rail in the early 1970s.
Dawson experienced a good deal of local success with Steel Rail throughout the 1970s; it was at this time that he also began doing singing and voice-over work for television commercials. Dawson's deepened voice boomed into households everywhere as a 'down-home' personality touting Jax Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, and Hungry Jack pancake mix.
While Dawson was hard at work keeping himself afloat in the music business in Dallas, younger bands and music revivalists such as The Cramps began to dust off Dawson's old 45s and cover his Ronnie Dee and the D Men songs. With the advent of the 1980s, a worldwide subcultural movement had begun to “bring back” the older rockabilly artists of the 1950s, mainly by releasing their older cuts on CD and booking them to rockabilly-themed festivals.
With classic rockabilly cuts such as “Rockin' Bones” and “Action Packed,” Dawson's music endeared him to collectors and promoters on the festival circuit worldwide, and he found himself right at the top of most promoters' wish lists. By the mid-1980s he found himself a star once again, arguably more than even the small taste of stardom he had experienced in his early years.
Dawson had re-releases of his older music occurring consistently throughout the 1980s, but in the 1990s he began to write, record, and release new original material using younger rockabilly musicians with an authentic flair for recreation and reinvention of the rockabilly and blues genres. These albums included Monkey Beat (1994), Just Rockin’ & Rollin’ (1996), and More Bad Habits (1999). This resurgence of creativity lasted the remainder of his life. In fact, many music journalists and critics believe that Ronnie Dawson's musical endeavors reached a summit in his later career years rather than his early years, even though he was performing the same style of music firmly rooted in the country, blues, and rockabilly genres, as he had in the 1950s. This continued pursuance of his early music is a departure from other White musical artists who had similar genre-specific careers of the era, and his success at delivering it thirty years later contributes strongly to his legendary status.
From 1995 up until (and past) his diagnosis of throat cancer in 2002, Ronnie Dawson's music continued to influence fans worldwide. Regional and national media touted Ronnie Dawson as a homegrown Texas legend. He was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1998. Dawson died on September 30, 2003. He was survived by his wife Christine, whom he had married in 1996. After his death fans held multiple memorials worldwide. A series of unreleased live and studio recordings from a tour in 1994 was issued by Bear Family Records on a CD titled The Carnegie Hall Tour in 2012.