A Conversation with Ral Donner by Rip Lay (As published in November 1979 Goldmine)

Rip: O.K., Ral, this is it. Are you ready for "This is your life"?

Ral: (Laughing) I guess so.

Rip: How old are you?

Ral: I’m 36, and was born on February 10, 1943 in the windy city - Chicago.

Rip: What was the name of your first group?

Ral: The Rockin’ Five, which was formed in 1957, and I was the lead singer. After that I had a group in 1958-59 which was known as "Ral Donner and The Gents".

Rip: What happened after the two groups broke up?

Ral: I went solo and started looking to cut a record. I split and went to Memphis and made contact with Nelson and Burch, the two cats who wrote "Tragedy" for Thomas Wayne. They agreed to produce me, providing I could get a backer; I got a backer and they came up with "Tell Me Why" and "That’s All Right With Me". We then leased it to Scottie Records in Memphis. This all took place in 1959. I did a promotion tour for Scottie in Florida with The Sparkletones and some other acts.

Rip: After your first record on Scottie what happened then?

Ral: My brother-in-law, who was like my manager, got a line on a studio in Florida with a guy who had something to do with "Stay" by Maurice Williams in some capacity. I played for him our demonstration copies of "Beachcomber", the tune Conway Twitty did, and "Girl Of My Best Friend" which we all did as The Gents in Chicago. The guy flipped over "Girl Of My Best Friend" and suggested we recut it, since it was number one by Elvis in England, and RCA hadn’t released it over here. I told him... "You can’t do an Elvis tune; nobody else has done it"... but he talked us into it.

Rip: What was the idea behind this recording session?

Ral: To make a master recording and take it to New York, and possibly lease it to a company up there.

Rip: When you went to Florida to record, did you have The Starfires? Who owned the recording studio?

Ral: I think Gloria Fox owned the studio. It was just a small studio with egg crates on the wall for sound proofing. No, the Starfires didn’t go with me. I met them at Gloria’s studio, they were all musicians who were just hanging out there. One singer played electric bass, and they got the guitar player and a drummer from a local group called The Tornados, and so those guys became The Starfires. Believe me, Rip, those cats were great; they had their own style like The Innocents or a group like that - they were fabulous. I’d love to see them again.

Rip: Do you remember what tracks came out of that session?

Ral: Sure do. "Girl Of My Best Friend", "Loneliness Of A Star", "And Then" and "It’s Been A Long Long Time".

Rip: What happened then?

Ral: The guy who helped produce the sides - Jan Hutchins - took the masters to New York and tried to get them leased. Columbia said even if the tunes didn’t make it they would be interested in me. As it turned out, Jan landed them with Gone Records, owned by George Goldner. The next thing I know is we’re on the charts with "Girl Of My Best Friend".

Rip: So then you were under contract with Gone Records?

Ral: There was really no agreement with Hutchins & Fox if I remember correctly. Actually, "Girl Of My Best Friend" came out and it was a big hit record and I wasn’t under contract to anyone. We then went up and met George Goldner.

Rip: You mean to say you didn’t meet him until the record was already a hit?

Ral: That’s right, it was already a hit when I met him. He then expressed to me how important it was for a second release, that it had to be better than the first one and things like that. He said he had to record me again. Whatever the case we recorded the album "Takin’ Care Of Business" in Miami, and I still wasn’t under contract.

Rip: The LP "Takin’ Care Of Business" is by far one of the best made. Who produced it?

Ral: Thanks Rip. We sure got a lot of hits out of it - that’s for sure. Artie Ripp came down from New York to produce it, and Steve Alaimo also helped a great deal. Steve was very young at the time, for his age he sure knew a hell of a lot about music. In fact, it was Steve’s idea to come up with "She’s My Baby". Steve had cut the song earlier and played it for me, I thought it was great so we cut the record right from his master tape. There’s something I forgot to say, Rip. Before we cut the album George Goldner first went to record me in New York after "Girl Of My Best Friend". He got a hold of the song "To Love" from songwriter Aaron Schroeder. We went into the studio with strings and real heavy production; after George heard it he thought it wasn’t the way to go - that it was too much of a departure off of what I had just done. I didn’t realize he got as far as releasing stock copies of that record (Gone 5108) and that’s when he pulled it off the market and sent me to Florida to do the album.

Rip: So your second hit "You Don’t Know What You’ve Got" came out of the Florida session?

Ral: Yes, and that tune was also taken as a mistake, I think it was submitted for a girl group, the Angels or some group like that. As we were going through demos it popped up. It said something like "meant for girl group". We all started laughing, but we liked the tune. Artie put it out anyway and it went to No. 4 in the nation. Then George started recording me in New York a little bit. We cut things like "She’s Everything", "To Love Someone", "Loveless Life" and others.

Rip: Who did all the writing on this great material you kept coming up with?

Ral: George got a hold of this writer; he said he was young and up and coming in the field and he had no attachments, and he would write a style just for me. The guy’s name is Doug Lapham. He came up with "I Didn’t Figure On Him", "She’s Everything" and "Please Don’t Go".

Rip: At the time you were riding with all these hits, did you date any girl singers?

Ral: Yes, Linda Scott and I were pretty close, we had what you would call afternoon dates. Take in mind we were very young and chaperones were always around. We spent as much time as we could, we would have to send the chaperones off to a movie or something to be able to go anywhere or be by ourselves. But time as it was, with traveling and such, we really didn’t call it going steady. As Paul Anka said...I guess it was only "Puppy Love".

Rip: Did you have groupies in those days?

Ral: I suppose.

Rip: C’mon Ral, are you trying to get out of that question? We want to hear what happened in the back of the bus when you guys did the tours...

Ral: Put it this way: There were a lot of nice parties in towns when you had a chance to stay. Sometimes you could really have some knockout, but you had to be on the bus, the road managers made sure you were on the bus, it was hard for that sort of thing. There were a few towns when you would lay over for a couple of days and one thing would lead to another. There you have it, pervert. Some of the bus trips were very long and tiring, so we would sing and joke to ease the tension. One group that’s just fantastic was the Roomates, Cathy Jean’s back-up group. One of the fellows could sing just like Johnny Mathis; he was unreal, you have to hear him to believe it. One tour in 1962 was with Dion and myself, and the other acts were all black artists such as Sam Cooke, Dee Clark, Solomon Burke, Etta James and The Drifters...what made this tour interesting was just about every show turned into good time Sunday gospel jamming. That was a fun tour.

Rip: Is there any one artist in the R&B field that really stands out in your mind?

Ral: Jackie Wilson. In fact, he gave me one of his shirts. I still have it. Brian Hyland, Tony Orlando and myself were watching Jackie from backstage, and we were all eyes, believe me. He was so dynamic. He would work up such a sweat by the time he came off stage, he was soaked. One night he tossed his shirt when he finished the show and it landed near me. I asked him if I could have it, and he said... "It’s yours, Ral, take it". I used to wear the shirt quite a bit, it’s my good-luck piece. Jackie was always the headliner and always finished the show last; there’s no way in hell anyone can come on a show after Jackie Wilson...there’s no doubt he’s ‘Mr. Exitement’.

Rip: Did you ever go on American Bandstand?

Ral: Yes, I did it four times. It really felt strange to be on it ‘cause I watched it like everyone else did. I was surprised it didn’t seem as large as it was on TV. It was a pretty small studio with bleachers, there wasn’t a lot of confusion as you might think it would be. It was very well put together and I dug every show I did with Dick.

Rip: Did you meet any regulars on Bandstand?

Ral: It’s strange that you mention that. Remember Carol the Italian girl? What a knockout she was! I used to admire her when she was on the show. The second time I was on Bandstand after Dick Clark interviewed me...he said... "See that gorgeous creature over there, she’s gonna lead you to the autograph table". I looked up and there was Carol, that was a thrill!

Rip: Why did you leave Gone Records?

Ral: Over royalty disputes.

Rip: What are your own favorite recordings of what you did?

Ral: "The Day The Beat Stopped", "Don’t Put Your Heart In His Hands", "She’s Everything", "So Close To Heaven", "Turn Back The Clock", "To Love Someone". The song I dislike the most is "Run Little Linda". What a loser!

Rip: In 1961 a radio station ran a huge contest featuring you. I remember it by reading about it in Dig magazine. What was it all about?

Ral: Oh yeah, what a gas that was! A radio station in Los Angeles, KRLA, ran a very big contest with lots of prizes and records, that sort of thing. At that time KRLA was like the biggest pop station in L.A. The name of the contest was "Who’s The Real Ral Donner". What they would do was play a line from "Girl Of My Best Friend" by Elvis and then play my line, and you’d have to guess who was singing what line. On the back of their top 40 survey sheet every week there would be a portion of five guys’ faces. One of them was mine and you had to cut it out and put it together and send it in to win your prize. It was a big contest; it ran for 4 or 5 weeks. I heard that when they asked Elvis about it while it was running, he said it was him, recording under another name. He was just kidding around, but some people took it seriously, and needless to say, it developed into a very interesting thing.

Rip: Did you ever meet Elvis?

Ral: Yes, two times - the first being in September 1961.

Rip: How did that come about?

Ral: My brother-in-law and my promotion man were on Sunset Strip at a restaurant. There were some girls in the booth next to us, I guess they overheard us talking about music. They asked me who I was, and they remembered my name from the contest, they said they were friends of Elvis. I really didn’t believe them. They said they would call Joe Esposito and set it up for us to meet Elvis, so I just played along with them. They came back from the phone and said, "It’s all set, Elvis wants to meet you". At this point I didn’t know what they were leading up to, I didn’t know whether they were gonna roll us or what. So it was Ernie Farrell and myself. My brother-in-law got cold feet so he didn’t go. They took us up to Bellaire and we were greeted by Joe, and he told us Elvis would be down in a few minutes. We waited about ten minutes and he came down the stairs with Connie Stevens at his side, she was his date for the night. I couldn’t believe he was walking towards me, he looked great.... We introduced ourselves and started talking about music. We got on the conversation of "Girl Of My Best Friend". He said when he first heard it, he was in the back of his Caddy when it came on the radio...he said he jumped up.... "You guys up there, shut up, turn the radio up full blast". He said he knew it wasn’t his, but he thought the rendition was great and sincere, we mostly talked about music the rest of the night.

Rip: Did Elvis ever say which song he liked the best that you recorded?

Ral: Yes, in a round-about way. The second time I saw him, in the Fall of 1962, he walked slowly up to me with his head hung down, when he got closer he lifted his head with that famous sneer and began singing "To Love Someone", that really blew my mind. He said it was a great song.

Rip: Why did you sign with Red Bird? After all, it was George Goldner’s label.

Ral: George wanted me back so we made a new deal and recorded "Love Isn’t Like That" in 1966. If there’s ever a record that had the Phil Spector sound that I did it had to be that one. A lot of production went into that one. George always told me that was the most down song he has ever heard.

Rip: There have been many rumors that another Red Bird artist, Jimmy Rice, was in fact Ral Donner. What’s the story behind that?

Ral: Jimmy Rice was probably the biggest shock of my career. He was the drummer in our second group, the Gents. He never sang and was very shy. Actually what happened - a few guys who knew both of us knew that Jimmy sang like that (I didn’t) so they would come over to my place and ask me questions about the music business and get all the information they could; I had no doubts or anything so I poured out all I knew about music. They took all that and figured they’d replace me with Jimmy. When he came forth with that big voice like Elvis, I just couldn’t believe it was Jimmy, a shocker.

Rip: What do you think about all the bootleg LPs that are coming out on you from overseas?

Ral: I think it’s good because it shows that somebody wants to hear the material. That makes an artist feel good. But on the other hand, I think they (the bootleggers) should get a hold of the artists and record them and do it the right way and pay them ‘cause we all need the bread. There’s a need for music, with the money they spend on booting stuff, why not just record that artist and put out new material? It would sell just as well. Do it with class like we did on "Don’t Leave Me Now". That would show up the record companies more than anything else. The one bootleg LP they did on me was just too much - "The Ral Donner Elvis Scrapbook" with me singing all the tunes and Elvis’ picture on the cover, that’s a mindblower. If Elvis only knew what they were doing with his stuff, I’m sure he’d be very upset. All of this is in very bad taste, using his name to sell everything under the sun.

Rip: How did you come up with "The Day The Beat Stopped"?

Ral: Mostly from inspiration from my son little Ral. He sensed what happened on August 16th, he knew that something wasn’t right because we were all broke up. Everything that day was all Elvis on TV, he picked up my guitar and started moving and shaking, trying to cheer us up. He was only 4 ½ at the time. He was doing it with a meaning and a purpose, that sort of inspired the song. I thought it was so great that it had gone past my generation right to him and he was caught up in Elvis as I had been when I was a kid.

Rip: When I first heard the song, it really sent chills through me. It’s a work of art.

Ral: Thanks Rip, I’m glad you feel that way. If you listen closely to the song a couple of times I nearly break down crying. We did the track in one take; I couldn’t have done it a second time. All my feelings came out in that song, it’s the most emotional song I’ve ever done. Sometimes when I listen to it I get tears in my eyes. It took me a long time to write it. Every ounce of me is in that song. I doubt very much I’ll ever come close to that one. Believe me I did that song for Ral Donner, it has a meaning and purpose behind it, not to make bread off Elvis’ name. I knew him and loved him, he was my idol. In our lifetime there will never be a bigger King than Elvis.

Rip: What can fans expect from Ral Donner?

Ral: That Ral Donner is back, and ready to rock-n-roll. They can have proof with our newest release of "Rip It Up".

Rip: Ral, thanks for "This Is Your Life".

Ral: To Goldmine magazine and all my fans, I would like to thank everyone for keeping the spirit of good rock-n-roll alive. If it wasn’t for you guys and gals, Ral Donner would not have been part of the history of recorded music. I will never forget the fans, they come first. Dreams and wishes make up our lives along with music. "Rock-n-Roll is here to stay".

The above interview transcribed from Goldmine November 1979 issue by Terry Wilson (August 2000)

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