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The Jordanaires sing gospel music and provided backup vocals for Elvis Presley. They also sang on several recordings by Ronnie McDowell, center.
Courtesy Photo
The Jordanaires sing gospel music and provided backup vocals for Elvis Presley. They also sang on several recordings by Ronnie McDowell, center.

Ronnie McDowell
'The King is Gone' singer, Jordanaires in Cullman on Saturday

By Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2438

Do professional singers/songwriters like Ronnie McDowell sing in the shower? Or is that left to those of us who couldn't sing anywhere else?

I forgot to ask those critical questions when I called his Nashville home for an interview and, yes, interrupted his shower.

"Call you back in a few minutes," he said.

McDowell will appear in concert Saturday night at Cullman Civic Center with the Jordanaires and his 15-year-old son, Tyler McDowell, who has a No. 63 hit with "Somebody To Die For You."

I had never spoken to McDowell. I have never seen him in a live performance although I've always admired his music. Surely scheduling conflicts foiled my opportunities, for he has been on the singing circuit for three decades.

But more surprising to me, McDowell never met Elvis Presley, who meant so much to his career.

"Never laid eyes on him," he said. "And yes, Elvis kind of defined my career. Without him, I wouldn't be talking to you. I feel like he and I are spiritually connected."

McDowell, a Portland, Tenn., native, was only a child when he saw Presley's television debut on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's "Stage Show" in January 1956.

"I was into Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Roy Acuff, Little Richard and Fats Domino," he said. "But Elvis blew me away. I had no way of knowing that my life one day would keep intercrossing his."

Shortly after Presley's death Aug. 16, 1977, McDowell burst onto the music scene with "The King Is Gone," a tribute song he co-wrote with Lee Morgan. The tune climbed into the Top 20 of both the pop and country charts. It went platinum with 5 million sales.

Out of the shower and relaxed, even with a nosey reporter on the line, McDowell sang the opening lines:

"I was barely six years old when I first heard him sing

But somehow I knew, from that moment on

That it would be a lifetime thing

And I'd stand in front of a mirror

Day and night

And I'd listen to every one of his records

And I'd repeat every word

And every note

. . . .till, somehow, I finally got it right."

He got it right, all right. In 1978, he released a Top 5 country single, "I Love You, I Love You, I Love You." The following year, producers tapped him to sing the vocals for Presley in a television movie starring Kurt Russell.

Although "all shook up" over Presley, McDowell "never thought about losing myself. (Elvis) became just a part of what I do. For example, I wrote Johnny Cash a song, 'I Believe in Good Old Rock 'n' Roll."

But he was concerned about being pigeonholed and teamed with Florence native and producer Buddy Killen at Epic Records in hopes of broadening his style. He was off and running once more, scoring a No. 1 hit in 1981 with "Older Women." That song kicked off a string of 11 consecutive Top 10 hits, including "Wandering Eyes" "Watchin' Girls Go By," and "You Made a Wanted Man of Me."

His 1983 song, "You're Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation," soared to No. 1. The next year, he moved to Curb Records and hasn't looked back.

"I've had a wonderful career with so many good records," he said. "There's a beauty in that I can be Ronnie McDowell and step over here and sing Elvis songs, not step in his shoes, but be him in a song and all those movies."

The Talley Trio released a song McDowell wrote in June 2005 that went to No. 2 on the gospel charts, "I'm Happy With You, Lord."

But he just completed his personal favorite of all the songs he has written, "Don't Give Up On Jesus," which will be on his gospel album, "Amazing Grace," that Curb plans to release in the spring. He also is pitching it to gospel groups.

Highlights Elvis

In concert, McDowell usually mixes new songs with all of his hits, but he will highlight the Elvis Presley story during Saturday's Cullman appearance with the Jordanaires.

"They're quite a group and a joy to hear. They certainly aren't strangers to me," he said. "They sang on several of my hits."

About that time, McDowell excused himself to answer the door. Returning to the phone, he said, "This is amazing. We're sitting here talking about Elvis and all. You won't believe who just walked in. I want you to talk to him."

No, it wasn't Elvis, but an Elvis connection I did know. No doubting the distinct voice of Sonny West, the King's longtime bodyguard. We had met in Decatur for a lengthy interview in July 2003, before his one-man show.

"Got something for you coming up that Ronnie and I are getting ready to do, that will materialize this year, a reality show based on the voice of Elvis," West said. "I'll be the host of 'Who Wants to Be Elvis" over NBC."

Based along the lines of "American Idol," West said the show will draw contestants from around the world. He said the winner judged most like Elvis will win $1 million, a pink Cadillac and a chance to record with the Jordanaires.

"It should get cranked up in May," West said. "You heard it here first."

How to go

What: Ronnie McDowell in concert

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Cullman Civic Center. Doors open at 7 p.m.

Tickets: $25 each, available at Baker Music in Cullman and at the door.

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