He began his career in the 1960s doing music in more of a Soul-pop style, scoring a few minor hits. He also worked as a session musician, including some keyboard and backing vocal work for Elvis Presley. In 1973 he signed with RCA Records and switched to country, scoring a Breakthrough Hit with the next year with "Pure Love", written by the equally poppy Eddie Rabbitt, which became his first #1 hit on the country chart. From then until 1992, every single he released peaked no lower than #6 on the country charts, and almost every release between 1980 and 1984 got pop airplay as well. 1992's "All Is Fair in Love and War" broke the streak, and after that, he exited RCA Records and never had a hit again. Nonetheless, he continues to perform and record to this day. Many of his songs were co-written by former Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Mike Reid, who also sang a duet vocal on the 1988 hit "Old Folks".
Although his slick, keyboard-driven sound was more influenced by pop and R&B than mainstream country, he is still one of the genre's most influential and prolific artists. His accolades include six Grammy Awards, five of which were for Best Country Vocal Performance Male. "Lost in the Fifties Tonight" won this honor twice. In 2014, he was announced as an inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Tropes present in Ronnie's work:
- Advertised Extra:
- Inverted on "Old Folks", which features guest vocals from co-writer Mike Reid. Reid sings most of the song himself, with Milsap singing only one verse and some harmony.
- Played straight with "You Don't Know My Love", which gave full credit to the backing vocals provided by Jypsi.
- He had several double-A-sides: "I Hate You"/"All Together Now, Let's Fall Apart" (1973), "Back on My Mind Again"/"Santa Barbara" (1979), "My Heart"/"Silent Night (After the Fight)" (1980), "Cowboys and Clowns"/"Misery Loves Company" (also 1980), and "Inside"/"Carolina Dreams" (1982).
- "In No Time at All" was shipped to country radio in 1979, while its B-side "Get It Up" was sent to pop radio instead. Later on, the same thing happened with "Prisoner of the Highway" and "She Loves My Car".
- Blind Musician: The most prominent in country music, by far.
- Break-Up Song:
- "I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World". They're breaking up, but he has no regrets.
- "Button Off My Shirt". They're broken up, but he doesn't care because he just sees her as an "everyday distraction".
- Christmas Songs: Christmas with Ronnie Milsap was issued in 1986.
- Early Installment Weirdness: His first singles in The '60s are Blue-Eyed Soul rather than country, with Milsap singing in a slightly deeper, grittier voice that made him sound more black than white; in fact, he managed to score a Top 20 R&B hit in 1965 ("Never Had it So Good"). One song from this period, "Ain't No Soul (Left in These Ole Shoes)", became a favorite on the British Northern Soul scene.
- Epic Instrumental Opener: "Still Losing You" has a 30 second instrumental open.
- Greatest Hits Album: Three between 1980 and 1991.
- Hard Truckin': "Prisoner of the Highway" has its protagonist restless about the combination of freedom and imprisonment felt by driving a truck across the country for long hours with little sleep.
- Later Installment Weirdness: He shifted from his signature pop-country sound to a twangier traditional country style toward the end of The '80s, with songs like "A Woman in Love" and "All's Fair in Love and War". One hit from that period, "Houston Solution", could easily pass for a George Strait song.
- Not Christian Rock: "What a Difference You've Made in My Life" is often seen as having a Christian message despite not being explicitly so. This interpretation was probably fueled by the fact that Amy Grant also recorded it.
- Production Foreshadowing: "Denver", a minor pop hit for Milsap in 1969, mixes acoustic guitar strumming with a vocal chorus and an orchestra, and ends up sounding a lot like it could be one of his country hits from The '70s.
- Rearrange the Song:
- Ronnie Milsap Sings His Best for Capitol Records is Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Averted with 40 #1 Hits which contains the original RCA recordings despite being released by Virgin Records.
- His 2019 album Duets features re-recordings of his hits with other popular country artists.
- Record Producer: The vast majority of his albums were produced by Tom Collins and Rob Galbraith.
- Self-Deprecation: Became a frequent presenter on country award shows, and would usually lift up his shades and pretend to read the winner's card.
- Shout-Out: The chorus of "Pure Love" references both Cap'n Crunch cereal and the old Ivory soap slogan "99 and 44/100 percent pure".
- They Changed It, Now It Sucks!: In-universe example with his 1979 No. 1 hit "Nobody Likes Sad Songs." The song is about a one-time superstar who begins singing almost exclusively heartbreak ballads instead of the "happy" songs that built his career, and it results in him losing his entire fan base. (Not uncoincidentally, his stylistic change comes at the same time as he was enduring a bitter breakup with his significant other.) An attempt to salvage his downspiraling career by reintroducing his uptempo songs into his act fails miserably, and he is eventually fired from his tour.
- Truck Driver's Gear Change: "Turn That Radio On" goes up to A for all but the last line of the chorus, which drops back down to the original key of G.
- Vocal Evolution: He had a more gritty R&B delivery on his early songs before settling into his usual tone. Also, his voice sounds considerably aged and weak on the 2019 album Duets.