RONNIE McNEIR – A RARE INTERVIEW
Keyboardist, vocalist and songwriter, Ronnie McNeir, breezed through London in November to perform two jazz/soul filled dates at Camden’s Jazz Cafe. A gentleman responsible for classic, contemporary soul albums like ‘Love Suspect’ and ‘Like & Love’ and most recently his ‘Rare McNeir’ set.
The Dood caught up with a well-groomed, inviting, and above all, youthful looking Mr McNeir after his first night’s performance in order to discover the soul of the man, how he got started on his musical journey and what his destination is? “My father bought my mother a piano,” began Ronnie. “Then they put me in piano classes, I was about nine or ten years old and I didn’t like it. I quit after about six or seven months having learned the regular keys. After that, I started playing by ear and then, when I got into High School, I took up some theory, aged seventeen”.
Fruitlessly scouting around Detroit (20 miles from his birth place of Pontiac, Michigan), in order to find work in the music world, Ronnie set off to California. “I went and met Kim Weston” revealed Ronnie “…I met her and that’s when I did my first album in 1971. It was called ‘Ronnie McNeir’ and it was on R.C.A. Records, and they didn’t push it… although it was doing well. It went to No.1 in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and St. Louisville and R.C.A. wouldn’t even put the records in the boxes so the people could buy them.” After a short hiatus Ronnie returned via his own label with ‘Wendy Is Gone’, which was lifted from the Prodigal album, which also housed `Sagitarian Affair’. A short stint on Mowtown Records in 1977 was followed by a link up with the legendary producer Don Davis in 1979/80 (who also had The Dramatics on his books) which culminated in a solid album which was never titled.
Ronnie proceeded to clear up the loose ends. “In fact this album that Mike Ward has released on his About Time label, ‘Rare McNeir’, is that same album I did in 1980. He bought that album and put it out, then brought me over to promote it. L.J. Reynolds took three of the songs off that album. He did ‘Ain’t No Woman Like My Baby’, ‘Southern Pearl’ and ‘Lonely Superstar’ – so the new album, I did that some fifteen years ago”, chuckled Ronnie.
In 1987 Ronnie and some friends got together to record the ‘Love Suspect’ set which brought more high-profile UK awareness via ‘Trying To Keep My Head Above’, ‘Lately’ and ‘Everybody’s In A Hurry’, to name but three. “The ‘Life And Love’ album was after that” resumed Ronnie. “‘Hold On’, ‘Simply Ridiculous’ and others. They were all fresh new tunes that I wrote with my writing partner; Renaldo ‘Obi’ Benson – he’s one of the Four Tops, my manager, and also like my big brother. I guess I had a social consciousness when I was writing that stuff”, reminisces Ronnie thoughtfully. Amazingly Ronnie was totally unaware of the impact ‘Life And Love’ or even ‘Love Suspect’ had on the UK soul massive in exposing his sound. “You see I never knew how it really did over here,” admitted Ronnie, eager for an update.
The completion of ‘Life And Love’ saw Ronnie traveling the U.S. again in search of a permanent gig and eventually he rooted in Las Vegas. Here he met his current lead guitarist and friend Ronnie Rathers. “He’s one of the best guitarists I’ve heard”, praises Ronnie. [The George Benson influence was overtly evident in his live delivery at the Jazz Cafe]
Had the church been a factor in Ronnie’s musical development? “Yes!”, quipped Ronnie. “..That’s how I learned to play in every key. We attended a Holy Ghost Church, you know where they shouted and everything. People would just get up and start singing the song in any key, I had to find the key. Sometimes they sang in-between the keys!” claimed Mr. McNeir, contorting his face to show disillusionment.
“That’s when I started playing left hand bass on the keyboard (known to the initiated as `Lefty’). Because I stopped my music lessons I forgot the correct fingering, so I learned backwards. I started playing what they call backward chord progressions. It might be wrong but it gives me my own style”. Ronnie was extremely forthright and assertive when confronted about his vocal influences. “Marvin Gaye and David Ruffin – they’re my heroes. Matter of fact I’ve got some stuff on David in the can right now. I’m the only guy who has the original stuff on David, I’m just waiting for the right time to make a deal on it. It’s original stuff that me and my partners wrote for him. As regards Marvin I love ‘Stubborn Kind Of Fellow’ and ‘Ain’t That Peculiar'”.
Female artist wise Ronnie would love to duet/work with Whitney Houston and even more so Anita Baker. “She’s baaad!” oozes Ronnie appreciatively. “We knew each other a long time ago when she was in Chapter 8. We used to be on the same gig and I would say hello”.
Who moved him musically, “Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann were the piano players that I loved. Bass players like James Jameson who did all the stuff for Mowtown, I got a chance to play with him. I tell you though one of my greatest times was playing with Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder. Me and Stevie Wonder played twenty minutes one day together. There was a baby grand piano here and baby grand there, he was playing and I was playing…he’s out there, but he’s a regular guy.”
Ronnie had some special words for the two British musicians who backed him, especially Winston Clifford (drums). “Winston’s baad man, in fact both of them, these guys are fantastic. I want to take them back to the U.S.A…. we only had one day’s rehearsal, so he (Winston) is baad man to stay right in there and stay on the beat, he’s one of the greatest I’ve worked with”.
Mr McNeir is definitely keeping busy in the production arena as well as personnel projects. “I’m producing Whitney Houston’s brother Michael and we’ve got some stuff which Whitney has committed to do.” Of his production role as a whole Ronnie boldly states, “I love that, better than I do singing myself. I like to take other people and get my ideas across to them”.
On the movie tip check for a thriller called ‘Cops’ staring Dan Akroyd and Jim Bulushi, because our man has the rights to the film score – big time a come! Look out for the next generation McNeir’s to break through in years to come, maybe in the shape of Raven McNeir, Ronnie’s daughter now fifteen. “She’s showing interest and we’re gonna find out if she’s really for real” says Ronnie.
Ronnie is currently working on an all new album incorporating hip-hop/jazz flavors. He is still holding out for the big hit. “I still have the thrill of being on top with an album, but I didn’t want to travel as much as I used to. I enjoy it, but if I could make the money producing… well, maybe I could be down in Florida while the money is being made.”
Ronnie McNeir, like he said of Stevie, is a regular guy, a man in touch with his audience and his values, both musical and spiritual. Let us hope he does feel the need to grace our shores again soon and not resign himself solely to production chores.
Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards