Ron Levine Interview
He won a Grammy Award for the Orange Blossom Special/Hoedown on the Urban
He was the fiddle player for Mickey Gilley’s Urban Cowboy Band at
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 (raemaemusic.com).
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
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
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
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
Q – So, you spent 2 years in the band?
A – Yeah.
Q – So, you then went on to play in Dottie West’s
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
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
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.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved