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Dallas singer Ronnie Dawson dead at 64
By THOR CHRISTENSEN
Dallas rock pioneer Ronnie Dawson, the “Blonde Bomber” who enthralled fans at the Big D Jamboree in the ’50s and Carnegie Hall in the ’90s, died at his East Dallas home Tuesday afternoon. He was 64.
He continued to sing after he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002. One of his last gigs was an emotional performance at the Rockabilly Rave festival in England in February.
“Word had gotten out about my situation, and I could see people crying even before I finished the show - I wasn’t prepared for that,” he told The Dallas Morning News in May.
Fans and colleagues around the country had rallied to help the singer pay his medical bills. In June, more than a dozen bands played a concert in his honor at Dallas’ Sons of Hermann Hall, and there were more benefit shows in Chicago and his childhood hometown of Waxahachie.
Mr. Dawson never racked up a Top 40 single or a gold album, but he was one of Dallas’ first bona fide rock stars. As a lanky, burr-haired teenager in the late ’50s, the singer - then known as Ronnie D. - cut a series of swaggering, influential tunes like “Action Packed” and “I Make the Love.” He had young girls squealing during his Sportatorium performances at the Big D Jamboree, and he held his own against fellow Big D acts like Elvis Presley.
Although soft-spoken in conversation, Mr. Dawson was famous for his hellfire live performances in which he’d jump off the stage, run through the audience and play his guitar standing atop a table. He said he was inspired by watching his mom sing in the church choir.
“That’s probably where I got a lot of what I do when I come on the stage, because I take on this different persona. I’ve always been kind of a shy person until I get in front of a crowd, and then something clicks and I become this showman,” he told The News in 1996.
“The stage really is his church,” Dallas record producer David Dennard said earlier this year. “He’s not doing it for the glory. He’s doing it for the music. He’s the real deal.”
Just as Mr. Dawson’s career was about to take off in 1959, the New York-based Swan Records pulled its promotional support, and his first shot at the big time disappeared. But he refused to give up.
He recast himself as an R&B artist named Snake Monroe, signed briefly with Columbia Records, and then joined the local Western swing pioneers the Light Crust Doughboys. In the ’60s, he packed the Levee Club on Mockingbird Lane with the Levee Singers, a folk act that glimpsed national stardom by appearing on The Danny Kaye Show and The Jimmy Dean Show.
After the Levee Singers broke up, he formed a country band, Steel Rail, and later sang TV and radio jingles to pay the rent. Just when it looked like his career was over, it took off again amid the rockabilly revival of the mid-’80s: The New York band the Cramps had cut a new version of Mr. Dawson’s “Rockin’ Bones,” and record producers were suddenly calling him back into the studio.
In the ’90s, he played twice on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and performed at New York’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Reviewing the Carnegie Hall show in 1994, The New York Times called him “superb … a guitar-toting answer to Jerry Lee Lewis.”
“In the one sense, I thought I’d be [more] successful, but on the other hand, it’s been amazing. It’s been a wonderful ride,” he said in May.
In 1996, after 50-some years of bachelorhood, he married Chris Davis, a former singer he’d first met in the 1960s at the Levee Club. In recent years, he had been semi-retired: He played the occasional rockabilly festival, but his only regular gig was a daily 10-mile jog around the M Streets and Lakewood.
“Don’t feel sorry for me, man,” a typically upbeat Mr. Dawson said in February, after doctors told him the cancer had spread to his lungs and was now terminal. “Last year was the first time I was ever in the hospital. Sixty-three years of quality life … are you kidding? I’m celebrating.”
Mr. Dawson is survived by his wife, Chris, and a half-brother, Louis Dawson. Services are pending. But a memorial gathering will be held Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m. at Sons of Hermann Hall, 3414 Elm St.