76 years ago today, music legend Ronnie Milsap was born. His story of perseverance in overcoming a deck that was severely stacked against him to become one of the most successful artists of all time is both remarkable and inspiring.
On January 16, 1943 in the poor farming Community of Robbinsville, North Carolina, Ronnie Lee Milsap was born with congenital glaucoma, leaving him with extremely limited eyesight. His mother believed that his blindness was a punishment from God, so she abandoned him when he was an infant. Millsap would be raised in a shack by his grandmother and step grandfather.
Ronnie Milsap’s childhood home. Photo Credit: RonnieMillsap.com
When he was six, his mother brought her four year old daughter to Ronnie. He recounted the event many year later in an interview with N.P.R. :
“She knows about me. She brought her second child by. I think I was about six years old. And her name is Brenda Gail, and brought her by to my grandparents’ house. And she said, Ron, I want you to feel her eyes. You know, her eyes are so pretty. She did not shame me the way that you did. She can see.”
Ronnie began attending the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. He immediately mastered Braille, and by the time he was seven, his instructors noticed his musical brilliance. He began studying classical music. A year after picking up a violin for the first time, he was declared a virtuoso. He then mastered the guitar, piano, as well as several woodwinds and stringed instruments.
When he was 14, he still had partial vision in his left eye. That however was taken from him when he was slapped across the face by one of the school’s house parents. From that point forward, he had not eyesight at all. For several years after this he was despondent and lost his motivation to study and learn music. When he heard Elvis for the first time, his passion was reignited and he decided to join a band. In 1964, already a college graduate, he was offered a scholarship to go to law school at Emory University. He turned down the scholarship to pursue a musical career, and at the age of 20 he released his first single, “Total Disaster.”
Milsap backed up Elvis on “Kentucky Rain”, recorded with the legendary J.J. Cale, then moved to Nashville in 1970 to work with Charley Pride’s manager Jack Johnson. It was then that his career began to take off. He had his first top ten hit with “I hate you” in 1971, and then three number one hits by 1973. In 1976 he had six number one hits in a row. Here is a jaw dropping statistic for you: he was in the country top ten every single week for 15 years!
Milsap has racked up some pretty incredible accolades over the course of his career. He has 40 number one country songs, 6 Grammies, 5 American Country Music Awards, was named country music entertainer of the year in 1977, and was inducted into the country music hall of fame in 2014. Is he done? No way. Tonight he begins his “76 at 76” tour in Nashville, where he will play in 76 cities to honor turning 76 years old. Not bad for a guy who was abandoned by his mother, shamed by her for being blind, and grew up in a shack.
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