Country music singer and pianist Ronnie Milsap once jammed on some recording sessions with Elvis Presley. He played with icons such as Kenny Rogers, and he recently sang with younger stars such as Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean for his upcoming duets album. But there’s one person who remains his favorite to work with: his wife.
Milsap met his wife, Joyce, at a dinner party outside Atlanta in the mid-1960s. Milsap, who is blind, calls it “love at first sound.” They were married in 1965, and she became his partner in life and in music.
Joyce could sing – her voice remains his favorite – but she was too shy to go on stage. Still, her voice was enough to lend some legitimacy to her thoughts about her husband’s career. They worked together to develop his natural talent for singing and playing piano. In 1972, Joyce encouraged him to move from Memphis, Tenn., to Nashville, the center of the country music industry. A year later, Milsap signed a contract with RCA records. After that, he said, everything happened instantly.
Milsap had seven No. 1 singles in a row from 1976-78, including “It Was Almost Like a Song.” Joyce heard that song, written by Hal David and Archie Jordan, in 1976 and thought her husband could sing it better. He sat at his piano and worked up an arrangement. After listening to it, Joyce called Milsap’s producer and said Ronnie needed to get into the studio tomorrow. The song became Milsap’s first million-seller single, and it introduced his music to a wider audience of adult contemporary fans, who embraced him as much as Rogers.
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Throughout his career, Milsap brought Joyce mixes he was working on and played them for her. She would tell him if she thought the song had potential, or, if it didn’t, she would say something like, “I think you’ve done better.”
“I’m always trying to gain her favor,” Milsap said in a phone interview.
Milsap once played the rough cut of his song “Lost in the Fifties Tonight” for Joyce and she suggested he hit a real high note as the song fades out. He recorded it that way and won two Grammys for two versions of the song in 1986 and 1987.
Milsap always maintained a strong vision for his music, which meant sometimes he and Joyce disagreed. After her first listen to “She Keeps the Home Fires Burning,” she told him not to waste his time. But Milsap thought that song was the only track he had that could possibly work and didn’t want to give it up. Joyce’s critique forced Milsap to rethink the song and, with the help of producers and writers, he molded it into a success. The song became one of Milsap’s 40 No. 1 country hits.
At the end of 2014, Milsap embarked on his final tour, though now he isn’t so sure he wants to retire. He loves his work and doesn’t know what else he’d do without recording and performing. He’s excited about his album of duets, though a release date hasn’t been set. It’s a way to adapt to the times, he said.
He has a strong support system around him with his band, his crew and, most important, his wife of almost 50 years. Milsap and Joyce still discuss his music like they have for the past five decades, and he’s still grateful for her opinion.
“What a difference she’s made in my life,” Milsap said.
If you go
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Stiefel Theatre, 151 S. Santa Fe, Salina
Tickets: $39, $49, $59, ticketmaster.com, 785-827-1998