The expression "keep on keepin' on" has a beads-and-incense, hippie-era tinge to it, but it's hard to think of a phrase that better sums up the life of Ronnie Dawson, a bristle-cut, twangy-voiced Texan who is a throwback to and a remnant of the early days of rock 'n' roll.
As a teenager in the 1950s, Dawson scratched out a small footnote for himself in rock's early history by playing stripped-down rockabilly music. At 17, he was a local hero in Dallas, sharing hometown stages with--and usurping some of the applause from--such touring stars as Elvis Presley, Johnny Horton, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. But in 1960, bad business luck, reverberating from that year's congressional payola inquiry into the music industry, cut Dawson off when he was on the verge of a shot at the national limelight.
He was left in obscurity, but not exiled from music. For nearly 30 years, Dawson played a mixture of rock 'n' roll and country music, sang on commercials for local TV and remained what he had wanted to be since earliest childhood: a career musician.
Over the past 10 years, '50s-style music has made a comeback, and so has Dawson. Now, at 57, he is riding the retro-rock wave in style with "Just Rockin' & Rollin'," a delightful new album that pumps out '50s rockabilly with both the authenticity of the true throwback, and the vitality and enthusiasm of a performer whose moment is very much in the here-and-now. (Dawson plays Saturday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, opening for Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, and headlines Monday at Linda's Doll Hut.)
"Just Rockin"' is the fourth release of Dawson material since 1987, when he began his comeback as a touring rocker. The spark came from an English collector/label owner's regard for the handful of obscure singles issued during Dawson's short stretch in the late '50s as a rock 'n' roll contender. Now, with his national touring, Dawson in his late 50s is starting to get some of the attention that escaped him in his late teens.
When he was a small boy in Waxahachie, Texas, 28 miles south of Dallas, his father, Pinky Dawson, played upright bass and led a band that played western swing on the radio.
"As soon as I saw him playing and heard the music, there was no doubt in my mind," Dawson said of his decision to take after his dad. "I don't know of a day in my life that I didn't know what I wanted to do."
Dawson's training was well-rounded. He was influenced by the country music of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. He also recalls standing in the parking lot of a Dallas blues club, excluded by age (he was about 14) and race (the clubs were segregated) but eagerly taking in the sounds of players like Lightning Hopkins and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown from outside.
Sometimes, on Sundays, the Dawson family would go to two church services: One at their own Assembly of God church, where his mother led the singing, and a second at a black congregation, where the attraction was the gospel music.
Dawson was still a small boy when his father gave up playing professionally, thinking he needed a steadier job to support his wife and their only son. As a teenager, Ronnie reestablished a Dawson presence on the Texas airwaves by winning a talent show and becoming a fixture on the Big D Jamboree, a live, weekly radio broadcast akin to the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride.
"We usually upstaged everyone," Dawson said. "I was 17, looked like I was about 14, and had this young band with me, and we were really high-powered. We were favorites of the audience and got a lot of applause. We also got some jealousy. Webb Pierce didn't like rock 'n' roll at all; we brought the house down and he didn't want to follow us, so he left."
In 1958, a Dallas label, Backbeat Records, put out a Dawson single. His regional buzz promised to become national when he was signed to Swan Records, co-owned by Dick Clark, the "American Bandstand" impresario.
The plan called for Swan to put out Dawson's record and plug it by giving him a national forum on "Bandstand." But Clark became entangled with the payola allegations, precluding the "Bandstand" exposure and derailing the promotional campaign for Dawson's single. A few weeks before those setbacks, Dawson's father had died of a heart attack.
"It was a very traumatic time,"Dawson recalled. "When [Clark] got investigated for payola [money offered disc jockeys to play records], he couldn't touch the records as far as pushing them. I just figured, 'It's not my time.' I had other things going. I got into a good-paying situation in a club in Dallas."
Dawson spent the next 25 years as a Texas club entertainer, mixing folk, country and rock 'n' roll. He got a couple more record deals, releasing a blues single for Columbia Records in 1961 under the name Commonwealth Jones, and a country single for the same label in 1969.