The Big D

Check out the cover of Ronnie Dawson's latest CD, More Bad Habits. The blond, flat-topped Dawson sits at a table that's buckling under the weight of mounds of fried onions and potatoes, stacks of ribs, oodles of burgers and beer, and a giant ashtray full of cigarette butts. On the left are drawings of dice, a bottle of booze and a devil's head.

That's neither Dawson's diet nor his lifestyle -- well, except for the rare slice of coconut meringue pie. Dawson, the rockabilly rebel, "The Blond Bomber," the guy who sings such odes to lust and gluttony as "Chili Pepper Mama," "Bad Habit or Two" and "Party Slab," doesn't drink, drug or smoke. A diet of carrot, apple and spinach juice is more to his taste.

He also sneers at being tagged "rockabilly," and this is a man who knows exactly where to draw the line. "What Elvis did with Scotty Moore and Bill Black was rockabilly," Dawson states. "Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were rockabilly. Carl didn't use a drummer at first. His bass player would beat along on the bass. Cash had a slapping bass.

"I come out of the chute, and that's rock and roll. When you add a drummer and it gets hard, that's rock and roll. That's get-down music."

But whether you call it rockabilly or roots rock, Dawson is definitely a Texas greaser, albeit one who has refused to become a dinosaur act. The man has too much integrity for that '57 Chevy-in-amber nonsense. Dawson has the blues, country and roots-rock chops that come from decades of playing clubs. Anyone who has heard his 1998 Live at the Continental Club or has seen him perform will attest to that. But were it not for the fanaticism of the neo-Teddy Boys in Britain, Dawson might still have been in Dallas knocking out jingles, and were it not for his passionate devotion to clean living, he might not have lived to experience his rediscovery.

The health kick began first. Dawson was rocking on stage and off. In the late '50s Dawson's Ronnie Dee & The D Men bested every band for ten straight weeks at The Big D Jamboree, a weekly Metroplex battle of the bands. That attracted the attention of Ed MacLemore, who at the time was Gene Vincent's manager. MacLemore signed Dawson to a local label, and Dawson cut two singles, including "Rockin' Bones," which became a regional hit.

During the first part of his career, Dawson had a remarkably high voice. "In my full voice, a lot of people said I sounded like Brenda Lee," says Dawson. "I didn't take it as a slam."

But in 1962 Dawson's voice began to deepen. He found he couldn't get through the night without going hoarse, and he began catching frequent colds. "I got tired of feeling bad. I had to do something," he recalls. "There was a fellow, a New Yorker, at my apartment building who was a fitness buff. He started to work at the club at the door. He challenged me. We were sitting by the pool one night drinking beer, and he told me I needed to get into shape. He said he'd come at eight in the morning to run with me."

Thus began a regular fitness regimen that Dawson has kept up for four decades. It includes running up to ten miles a day and a juice diet. So much for the bad-boy image. "I became another person," he says. "I don't know how long I would have lasted without it."

Could it be that Dawson's predilection for clean living comes from his Pentecostal upbringing? Hardly, Dawson says. Apparently there he learned more about sin than salvation.

"Being raised Pentecostal taught me a lot of ways I didn't want to be," he says. "My mother was really heavy into it. My dad [western swing bandleader Pinky Dawson] wasn't. If it weren't for the music, he never would have gone. Maybe neither would I….I tell you, that's some of the wildest people I've ever met in my life."

Dawson attended the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie his junior year of high school, but he didn't last long. "I just found the ways of the world too attractive," he says. "There were two girls who went home pregnant that year. That was unheard of at public school in Waxahachie….That's also where I learned to drink and smoke. Three or four of us would go to chapel each morning. We had assigned seating. When everybody would stand up to pray, we'd sneak out to smoke."

Dawson has always been hip to being trashy. "Don't get me wrong, I ain't no angel from above / I'm still a gamblin' man, I bet my heart on solo love / I used to be good at being bad / Now I'm just bad at bein' good," he sings on "Good at Being Bad." But the difference is that Dawson never thought of himself as trash, nor has he ever treated himself as such. Dawson does not -- unlike too many others -- confuse his stage act with real life. Maybe that's why he's heading into his fifth decade as a musician.

"Personally, I don't think people that get strung out have grown up," he says. "Some of these young musicians will take anything, and that's not very good upbringing. You have to develop some kind of self-pride. Be vain if you have to. I was always vain. I think more of my temple [my body] than that. Hell, I won't even get a tattoo."

In spite of his mental and physical health and an abiding devotion to his muse, Dawson almost saw his career come to a premature end in 1986. Long years of scuffling without a smash hit and suffering the slings and arrows of a notoriously shady business had taken their toll. "I got tired of the record game real quick," Dawson says. "It was nothing but chasing the carrot."

He was living frugally on his own, cutting jingles for local Dallas ad agencies, when he received a call from British record collector Barney Koumis, who told Dawson that some of his old recordings were much-sought-after collector's items in England. Koumis asked the Texan if he had any other material he might be willing to release on the Englishman's No Hit label. Subsequently, No Hit put out Rockin' Bones, a compilation of Dawson's early hits. This led to two more albums and a rediscovery in Europe.

Dawson began making two or three northern European tours per year. European fans, though, were all too keen to erect a gilded cage around The Blond Bomber. They didn't want to hear Texas blues or country, only rockabilly. Essentially they wanted Dawson to rehash his early hits -- that's all.

"You've got a lot of the British kids who are more interested in the looks and the authenticity," says Dawson. "[They] dress in uniform. They're very serious about the music, and they'll let you know if they don't think it's authentic."

"Some of them won't go out to the clubs to hear a guy like me," Dawson continues. "They'll only listen to records because they don't want to hear anything [new]. They are fans of the records themselves. We'd do these festivals, and there's a whole area these people go, not to hear the bands but to hear a DJ blast them records out louder than the band. The boys line up on one side of the room, the girls on the other. They don't dance together. They are dressed in full regalia, and they bop by themselves."

That said, Dawson's happy to finally get an audience, no matter how fanatically conservative. Besides, a true musician never really quits playing, he says, even if some do quit the public arena because they're tired of fighting the industry bullshit, a fact that Dawson keenly appreciates.

"I heard [jazz band leader] Artie Shaw say one time that you're prepared in life to be a failure, but you're not prepared to be a success. That's why he quit in the middle of a successful career. I never quit, because I couldn't think of anything else I would rather do."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Aaron Howard