Ron Levine Interview

He won a Grammy Award for the Orange Blossom Special/Hoedown on the Urban Cowboy Special.

He was the fiddle player for Mickey Gilley’s Urban Cowboy Band at the time.

He’s toured and recorded with everyone from Roy Clark to Charlie Daniels, everyone from Merle Haggard to Kenny Rogers.

And best of all-----he’s from Syracuse, N.Y.

His name is Ron Levine and he recently shared his story with us.

Q – Ron, why is there no mention of your days as a Syracuse musician on your website?
A – Actually, I’ve been out of the music business for quite a long time. I’ve had Multiple Sclerosis for about 20 years now. About 6 years ago I couldn’t move my arm, couldn’t move my leg. I couldn’t pick up a fiddle basically or a fork. When I left the music business to raise a family we ended up moving to town. I figured someday I’d get back to playing. I actually always kept that in my mind. When I couldn’t play, all of a sudden it became very important to me that people know what I used to be able to do. It’s kind of hard to explain why that happened, but that’s what happened. I did a lot of things with getting out old tapes and trying to restore old tapes, and digitize them and add bass and drums to things. I built that website ( I didn’t intentionally leave out Syracuse. I just went back a certain way, a certain time. I can now actually play again.

Q – Well, that’s good.
A – I put a CD together. I combined some things that maybe I did 20 years ago. Tried to do some new things. But the fact that it’s out there motivates me to actually put something together that I’m actually proud of. That’s what I work on everyday. When I get to that point when I have that product complete I’m sure I would invest the time and energy into me or someone putting together a website that does include more history. Syracuse was not left out intentionally.

Q – Let me take you back to 1973. Do you remember when you entered the Women’s Universe Contest?
A – The what?

Q – The Pickins (the duo Ron was part of) entered the Women’s Universe Talent Contest that was held at the Syracuse War Memorial. Do you remember that?
A – At the War Memorial? No.

Q – There were three finalists in this talent contest. Debbie Barsha-----does that name ring a bell?
A – No. (Laughs).

Q – Then there was a group called Talisman and then there were The Pickins.
A – We played in a contest at the War Memorial?

Q – Yes you did. The winner of the contest would go on to perform at Three Rivers Inn. Does that spark any memory?
A – No. Why are you interested in that contest?

Q – The reason is because the winner of that contest was Talisman. I managed that group. My brother, Steve Steele was in that group. He went on to play bass for Alice Cooper. Debbie Barsha went on to tour with Thomas Dolby and got a publishing deal with SONY Publishing. And of course you went on to win a Grammy with Mickey Gilley. A lot of talent in that room that night with those acts. That’s why I bring it up. But, you don’t remember it.
A – Maybe if we won I would’ve remembered it. (Laughs).

Q – You played this club called Shifty’s back in 1972.
A – I remember Shifty’s. It was a small club. I can’t remember the street it was on. (Note: It was Burnet Ave.) But, I can picture it. A guy named Oz used to play there. He was on piano. But, yes, I do remember Shifty’s.

Q – Was it worth it for The Pickins to play such a small venue?
A – Yeah. The size of the club back then didn’t seem to matter. Our main gig was at the Barge Inn Country House. We played there for a couple of years. Every Friday and Saturday.

Q – Where was that?
A – In Nedrow. Before we played there, there was a group called David and Daniel. They played in the upstairs and we played in the downstairs. There was chicken wire on the ceiling. People could look down at the downstairs band from the upstairs. Then, when David and Daniel left, we took over the upstairs. We played there for a couple of years.

Q – So, how did you get from the Pickins to Mickey Gilley’s band? Did you have to audition?
A – No. We (The Pickins) went to California. We played in San Diego for awhile. We played in Aspen. Outside of San Francisco. I got tired of it and came back to Syracuse. When I did, I started playing with the Moss Back Mule Band. We were playing in a club in Rome, New York. Gilley had just played the Boonville Fair and like they always do after shows, looked for a club to hear some music and have a few beers. They stopped and heard the Moss Back Mule Band; and Gilley was building a recording studio tied to his club at the time. He took us down there. He flew us down to record in his studio. Played at the club. Of course nothing happened with that recording. I made friends with the fiddle player when I was down there. He wrote me a letter saying Gilley was looking for a fiddle player. So, I called Gilley up; told him I was his man and he said they’re going on the road in 3 days, can you get down here? I said yes, packed up, and drove down to Texas, and that was it. We went on the road in a couple of days.

Q – Did you like being in his band?
A – I liked being in the band. I liked Gilley. I liked the band and the music, and Gilley. I had difficulty with some of his management and partners. It was different for me to deal with them than Gilley. Gilley could actually talk to a lot of people as a partner. I was not on that level. So, it was a little difficult there. I did like the music, but then after a couple of years, the other half of it was too hard for me to take so I left.

Q – So, you spent 2 years in the band?
A – Yeah.

Q – So, you then went on to play in Dottie West’s band?
A – No, not yet. I moved to Colorado for a couple of years, playing in a band with my brother.

Q – What was that band called?
A – Two Bucks And Change. His band was originally playing in Baldwinsville I think. That was where Two Bucks And Change started. They moved to Texas and I called Jonathan that I was leaving Texas, how about if we put a band together? So, I joined his band and we played there for a couple of years. And then I decided that well, if I’m going to do anything in music I probably oughta be in Nashville. So, that’s when I moved to Nashville.

Q – When you were in Colorado, you were skiing in the day, and playing music at night?
A – Yeah. Its lot’s of fun. (Laughs). It’s a great place.

Q – You were playing clubs?
A – Yeah. We were playing Aspen, Vail. You’d play for a week at a time. You’re set up at the place you’re gonna play. So, what are you gonna do during the day? You’re playing at a ski lodge usually. So, it was just great. As far as a musical career, it was probably time to move on.

Q – So, when you moved to Nashville, you joined forces with Dottie West?
A – Well, not right away. The thing about Nashville is, once you’ve established yourself as a respectable musician, if they need a fiddle player they start to know who to call. They have a list. I played with different people. I played with Johnny Lee for awhile too, after I moved to Nashville. I was playing with Lobo. I played with him for awhile. I actually did a lot of stuff at his studio. But then, just the way it happened, Dottie was going on a five day tour with Kenny Rogers, and they had just lost their fiddle player. So, the guitar player was someone who lived in the same apartment complex and he knew I was there and he came by and said, ‘Do you wanna go on the road with this 5 day gig with Kenny and Dottie’? I said, ‘O.k. Sure.’ After I did that, Dottie asked me if I would join her group, be a regular member of the group. At first I told her no, ‘cause I was doing a lot of stuff with Lobo. Then Lobo decided several months later he was going to move to Florida. Dottie called again and said they were going out again for this other tour, and wanted me to do that, so I said yes. At the end of that one, she said, ‘I’d still like you to join the band’. That time I said yes and stayed with her for about 3 years.

Q – Would you have been with Dottie West when she played the Grandstand at the New York State Fair with Kenny Rogers in 1978 and 1979?
A – No. I was with her ’85, ’86, ’87. I left her about a week after my daughter was born, and she was born in September ’87. So, it was the 3 years prior to that that I was with Dottie. When I was with Dottie and that was a ‘hot’ band, Dottie’s band, I really enjoyed that probably more than any artist I worked with. Her keyboard player left. So, we were saying who knows a keyboard player? I said I know a real good keyboard player, who was in Nashville at the time. His name is Freddie Lawrence. He played in Cross Creek. So, he joined the band and played quite awhile in the band. When Dottie would introduce Freddie she’d say, ‘From Syracuse, New York-----Freddie Lawrence’. When she introduced me she’s always introduce me from Nashville, ‘cause I lived in Nashville when I met her. I really enjoyed working with her. She let everyone get an opportunity to play what they wanted to play as opposed to a lot of the country artists, depending on who it is, want to hear exactly what’s on their record every night and it gets old after awhile. With Dottie, she wanted to hear you play something different all the time. She encouraged that and I really enjoyed working for her.

Q – I’m going to read off a list of names and you tell me if you either toured or recorded with them: Conway Twitty.
A – We did shows with him, with Gilley and with Dottie. We spent 2 weeks in Las Vegas with Conway Twitty at The Frontier.

Q – Merle Haggard.
A – We did some shows with him with Dottie West. I don’t know if we did with Gilley.

Q – Charlie Daniels.
A – We did a lot of shows with Charlie Daniels, with Gilley right after ‘Urban Cowboy’ came out.

Q – Roy Clark.
A – We did Hee-Haw with him. Actually I did a t.v. show with him, he and Johnny Lee and some other people somewhere in Kansas.

Q – Bertie Higgins.
A – That’s interesting. I did one of the t.v. shows in Nashville that I taped with Bertie Higgins. I think I just played mandolin on that one. I can’t remember the name of the show. I just remember looking at a tape of it just awhile ago for some reason.

Q – So, all the people I mentioned you toured with, but you never went into the studio with?
A – Not then.

Q – The P.B.S. show “American Skyline” did a special about your career?
A – That special was about me and the Grammy Award. Their theme of it was talking about the difference between fiddle and violin. It wasn’t about my career at the time. They came to the house and just kind of interviewed me. I played a little violin, piano.

Q – What’s this “Ghost Rider” CD you put out all about?
A – That’s my first attempt at trying to put on a CD what I was capable of musically that I was afraid no one was ever going to know, because I couldn’t move my hand anymore. So, that was the first attempt. That’s out. Now, I want to put something together that I’m happy with the quality of; I want to go into the studio. I’m almost more motivated by having something out that I don’t feel is the greatest quality, because that motivates me to keep working to get it where I am happy with the quality of. So, that’s what that is.

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