This interview was first published in a zine called Playbat in the Spring of 1996. The same edition also featured an interview with the legendary Link Wray, which can also be found here on WordPress. Back then I was known as Dewey Inkbat, of The Inkbats, just another no account jumped up fool. I am now heard of as Frank Garland, of The Frank Garland Show, and nothing has changed.
The reader may find some of the language in this feature offensive if read out of context. I believe the messages they convey are not offensive in nature, but I apologise in advance for any upset. On with the show!
There was a time when rock ‘n’ roll was considered, quite naturally, as an evil negro disease threatening to infect the innocent minds of God’s own angelic white teenagers! The thing was, there was plenty of that poor white trash just itching with that infection – but few scratched so hard as young Ronnie Dawson.
With his close cropped flat-top, he was billed as The Blond Bomber, and he thrilled audiences with his wild live performances. The kid was screamin’ an’ a-snarlin’, ragin’ an’ a-hollerin’ an’ plenty more afore he’d been weaned off the milk.
Ronnie Dawson’s career began with the release of the phenomenal ‘Action Packed’ which, like much of his material, is a rocket powered rocker of desperate teenage ambitions. Since it’s release forty years ago, he’s never lost that itch to play good time rock ‘n’ roll.
I never quit doin’ it, says Ronnie, It just seems more right now than it ever has.
The Blond Bomber was in England last December recording a new album for the No Hits record label, and it was a chance meeting that led to this interview with Mr Rockin’ Bones – y’hear me!
The man is tall and handsome, possessing a lean, disciplined frame that puts most half his age to shame. He takes his tea black with honey, and relaxes smoking a pipe, as we unlock some long untouched memories of the past.
How were you first introduced to music? What were your earliest influences?
My father was a western swing musician. I can remember listening to him on the radio in the Thirties. He had a band in Dallas, and they played on the radio every morning, and then they had a club where they played at night.
And then my mother was involved in the church as a song leader. At first, my dad wasn’t a churchgoer, so he used to assign me to go to church – and, for the most part, I enjoyed it. At least the singing and musical part of it I really liked, so I got a lot of influence from that too.
Was it the bold Gospel style of the black churches, or the more sedate and conservative white worship?
It’s funny. They say that black people clap on beats one and three, while white people clap on the beat. If you listen, that’s the way it generally is. That’s the way white people hear it.
To me, there’s a white Soul; songs like Amazing Grace and Power And The Blood – they have feeling too. But the Black music was what always turned me on. I always wanted to hear that and, when I heard it, I always wanted to hear more of it, y’know?
Have you ever been tempted to go in that direction – record Amazing Grace?
No, I really haven’t. Maybe sometime I will. But, to me, there’s not really that much difference. It’s just words. I get the same feeling singing Shim Sham Shimmy!
Did the religious teachings hold?
Pretty much – though I’ve tried to take it and be open with it and not narrow, and not condemn people. Each person has to have their own special spiritual awakening. You have to develop it yourself. I don’t think you have to go to church.
Some of the things I thought I’d got over, I find myself having funny feelings about. Guilt, for instance. I think churches like that instill guilt in people, and I don’t like that. I don’t think people should feel guilty about goin’ out and having a good time. I’ve learned a lot from the Eastern philosophies, because it’s a discipline I really like. I do a lot of disciplined things. I work out. I’ve been a runner for thirty years, and I meditate some.
Even reincarnation makes sense to me. I meet a lot of people that I’m sure I’ve known before. There’s been too many of these things happen to make me say that it’s not true.
Was your father your first musical hero?
Probably, but there were different people. I really loved Maybelline, and all that stuff Chuck put out – and Blue Suede Shoes, of course – but I thought he (Elvis) was black, ’cause you never saw any pictures of these people. They didn’t have the publicity system that they have now. So when I found out he was a white dude – man! I said, “Wow! Maybe I can do that!”
It used to be very exciting when we’d go to people’s houses to do what they call a ‘musical’. It was a thing where everyone was involved – even the kids. It would be rainy and cold outside in the winter, but you felt warm and secure inside.
At what age did you start recording music?
I made my first record when I was about four, with my dad and my uncle playing behind me. I hadn’t learnt to play an instrument yet, but I remember going into a little studio in this fellow’s house, and he had this small tape recorder. It had to be one of the first ones, ’cause it was the early forties.
My uncle played fiddle and my dad played guitar, and they put down a couple of Jimmy Rogers songs. That’s probably where I got a lot of my blues influence, from my uncle. My uncle was a wild guy. He played some bluesy things on that fiddle. You could tell he was heavily blues influenced, and my dad was too.
Was your mother fearful of your uncle’s influence?
Yeah, sometimes they’d have words about it, but I think it was the first thing that made my dad happy when I started to play. He loved it!
He could be a strict disciplinarian. He believed in the old values, which I do too, to a certain degree. But, when he would play, a transition would take place, and he’d become this person that I really loved.
My father used to say, “You’re not gonna be strong! You’re not gonna build and have any muscles! You’re not gonna able to do anything if you don’t drink your milk!”
But my father died at a very early age. He wasn’t a smoker, he wasn’t a drinker. My uncle was, and they didn’t get along. My uncle would drink quite a bit. He drank all his life and, ironically, lived to be almost eighty! Dad passed away when he was 57 years old. But he was a meat person – he didn’t like vegetables. Everything had to be fried. And if he didn’t like something – that’s it – don’t put it on the table!
Do you find yourself becoming more like your dad?
Very much so.
Yeah, that’s probably him. He always told me, ‘Don’t ever make me have to come and get you in jail!’
Those words still ring in my head. I can remember, when we were out, you’re thinkin’ about doin’ some kinda mischief and those words would always ring in my ear – I was just sure that he’d probably kill me!
One time, these guys and I stole some hubcaps off a ’55 Chrysler. I had a little cave built out behind the house we used to play in when we were younger. I hid those hubcaps in there, and I said, ‘He’ll never find ’em in there!’ But come Sunday morning, I heard him call my name, and he had this certain tone in his voice. When I walked out, he was standing there with those hubcaps, lookin’ at me.
That was probably the last whipping that he gave me. My mother told me that every time he did that, he would go off on his own an’ cry. She’d always get uneasy ’cause he’d get really emotional. He’d get really mad. I’d run, and he’d start chasing me, and I’d fall across the bed. If I fell across the bed like an idiot, he’d really let me have it! I’d have belt marks on my legs.
But, through all of that, I don’t think that’s really necessary today – or maybe it is, but you can’t do it! It’s a bit much, but it was effective on me, and kept me from doing a lot of things I might have got in trouble for.
But you did get up to some high jinks?
Y’know, we’d get together and go out into a small park in town. We used to do this annually. The first one we did was really neat. We all got together and parked our cars and walked into the park and we’d start raisin’ hell, turnin’ over trashcans and knockin’ out lights.
What we wanted to do was get the police to come down there. There were only two police cars in town and, when they got in there, we locked them in and threw away the key. They chased a few of us and caught about fifteen – there were about thirty-five of us in all. They had a cooler behind the police station, and all we could see were these arms hangin’ out the windows. They were hollerin’, ‘go get us some cigarettes, get us some sandwiches!’ That was probably the worst thing we did.
Did you have a gang nickname?
Probably “Tweetybird”, being that I was so little.
So did you start playing rock’n’roll at school?
Were you considered an upstart?
Of course! Y’know, Elvis had just happened, and anybody got up with a guitar and girls would start screaming!
And that was a major incentive?
Ha ha ha! Not really, no. I didn’t really care, but I had a couple of buddies come by my house real early and took my guitar to school without me knowing. They put me on the spot. I had always been the kind who would walk along the halls and didn’t say anything to anyone. All of a sudden I jumped out, and there were some funny looks.
When you first started there was a lot of label hopping going on.
I started out on Backbeat Records. They were going to put out two singles in our original contract. I had already recorded these things with my manager, Eddie McLemore, Gene Vincent and Johnny Carroll’s manager. I had already made several demos – Action Packed was one of them, Rockin’ Bones was another – and there’s a new one they’ve just found, written by the same guy that wrote those. Anyway, Backbeat decided not to put out the second, so my management founded their own label, Rockin’ Records, which Rockin’ Bones is on. From there, I guess it was Swan.
Was no one prepared to go all the way?
Actually, there was quite a push. I went on a promotional tour, which a lot of guys didn’t get to go on – but they knew I put on a good stage show. They thought they might have a hit record with me but, when it didn’t happen after a couples times…
But then Swan came along. That was a pretty big deal for us – until Dick Clark got investigated for payola, and that wiped us all out. Swan signed myself and Scotty Mckay to record. We were both blonde guys, and we were supposed to be the next blonde Fabians.
I bet you looked forward to that.
Well, we just wanted a hit. By this time we would do just about anything! Record companies always want to change your name. They always want to change something, don’t they.
Do you think they could’ve polished you up and kept your ears clean for long?
Man, I don’t know, Dewey, it’s weird. They told me, “We think we’d like to sign you, we’re interested in you. If we can get the sound which you get on stage, we can sell records.” That’s what they told me, so I signed. But after I sign, they take me to New York – and no guitar! It was horns, and a formula they’d had success with for Freddie Cannon.
Did they try to dress you up in frilly shirts?
I can’t really remember what publicity pictures they used. But it wasn’t so much that. They were trying to sell it ’cause I looked so young and had a flat-top. Because no one had a haircut like that – no one had the nerve!
Why did you have the cut?
Everyone did in my town – ’cause it was the cheapest!
Do you know the most common response I heard when I mentioned I was coming to interview you? One said, “Doesn’t he bat for the pink team?” I thought you might want to set the record straight.
Oh, I’ve heard that rumour, but no one’s ever said that to me. People can think what they want. I’m 56 years old and not married. Maybe they think that’s the reason, y’know?
Only thing I can tell you is, I still like women. I love everyone but, if I was to have sex with anyone, it would definitely be with a woman. Maybe they’ve seen me hug guys before, because I’m a hugger, I’m a lover. But as far as having sex with men? I don’t have sex with men.
How did you’re father influence your upbringing? I hear your something of a nature boy?
Yeah, I was raised on a farm, so we had quite a few animals – chickens an’ hogs. He always had hunting dogs too. But he didn’t believe in guns and he didn’t believe in violence. He would let the dogs go and hunt, and the dogs would tree the racoon and he would leave it. He wouldn’t kill the ‘coon at all. I respected that. He raised me saying that no good can come from owning a gun. In America they’ve just passed a law that you can carry a gun – you can licence and carry a gun! To me, that’s appalling! To me, that’s going back a hundred years. That’s just the nature of the politics which I’m very much against, and I still believe that. I don’t think any good can come from carrying a gun.
Do you involve yourself in political issues?
I used to, but not anymore.
Did you attract trouble?
No, nothing like that. I’ve never been that radical with it. If you make war with it, or fight someone – to me, that’s defeating the purpose. The only thing you can do is think and believe. I’m a positive thinker. I still think everything’s gonna bevalright with the world, and I still care very much about what happens.
Should music and politics be kept separate?
I used to feel I had to write a song and there had to be a message there, but I don’t really feel that way now. I don’t think people want to be preached to these days. Most people know the difference, they know better.
So what’s the driving message in your music?
As long as it’s a good time and it makes you smile – that’s what I’m about. A good feel. Most of my songs, and most of the things that I record, have a good beat – a good intense beat – to them. If it makes you tap your foot and smile – and dancing, of course, is fine. If they want to dance, that’s okay with me! But I just do it to make people smile, make you feel good, ’cause that’s what rock’n’roll, to me, is about.