Ral Donner

TrackSingle / Album
Girl Of My Best FriendGone 5102
Standing HereThe Complete Ral Donner
To LoveGone 5108 then Gone 5133
School Of HeartbreakersTakin' Care Of Business
You Don't Know What You've Got
(Until You Lose It)
Gone 5108
She's My BabyTakin' Care Of Business
Please Don't GoGone 5114
I Don't Need YouTakin' Care Of Business
(What A Sad Way) To Love SomeoneGone 5125
She's EverythingGone 5121

Ral Donner photo 1

 

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Ral Donner playlist

 

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Ral Donner was an Elvis clone. Yah, boo, hiss you might say. Bear in mind that I’m talking about 1959 to 1962; Las Vegas was no more than an improbable dream in the Presley grey matter, and spangled suits, the stuff of fantasy when young Ral was doing his thing. The word ‘clone’ hadn’t become such a familiar one in our language. Elvis soundalikes were ten a penny in the second half of the fifties, think Eddie Cochran (on ballads in particular), Buddy Holly in the Decca days, Conway Twitty, mais naturellement; it was something of a rite of passage for white would-be rock stars. But no one did it better than Ral, not even the great Twitty.

The name. Not real, right? Wrong. He was born Ralph Stuart Emanuel Donner (on 10th February 1943 in Norwood Park, Chicago).

He could well have been a precocious child. We’re told that at the age of three or four he would entertain family and friends with an impersonation of Al Jolson; at eight he appeared at the Orchestra Hall, Chicago in a ‘Youth For Christ’ rally singing the Ink Spots’ It’s No Secret (What God Can Do) which was taped and broadcast on Chicago Radio that same day; at eleven he appeared on WGN-TV Chicago singing The Old Rugged Cross; by 13, having latched on to this new rock and roll thing, he had mastered piano, guitar and accordion. The success story continued. In autumn 1957 (aged 14), Ralph formed his first band, the Rockin’ Five; in January 1958, the band cut an acetate of Miss Ann (the Little Richard number) c/w Oh Boy (which I assume was the Buddy Holly/Crickets number but it’s not on YT) and in March the same year, Sammy Davis Jr. saw him live and not only paid him compliments but arranged for him to appear on the Steve Allen TV Show. In April, he appeared (at the age of 15) at the Harlem Apollo and then, shortly afterwards, on the Alan Freed “Big Beat Rock’n’Roll Show” when it played Chicago; on the bill were The Diamonds, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly with the Crickets and Jerry Lee Lewis.

So far so good but what Ral, who dropped the ‘ph’ somewhere around this time, needed was a record label. Late in 1958, he travelled from Florida, where he was at that time living, to Memphis and met Gerald Nelson and Fred Burch, the newly formed song writing partnership who had just cracked the Billboard Top Ten with their song Tragedy sung by Thomas Wayne and the Delons. For more on that topic see my Toppermost on Thomas. The pair agreed to write songs and produce Ral if he could get financial backing. This he managed to do and he returned to Memphis in 1959 cutting two songs written by Nelson & Burch in the Pepper Studio in the city. The Praguefrank sessionography for Ral informs us that Bill Black was on bass and Charlie Rich on piano but doesn’t identify any other musicians. In the autumn of ’59, Ral formed a new group, Ral Donner and the Gents, so whether any of them were on this record, we don’t know.

The label was Scottie, based in Atlanta, Georgia and the tracks were That’s All Right With Me and Tell Me Why. The flip was pleasing, professional, but not overly memorable teen pop. You wouldn’t describe the A-side as not being memorable though. A busy rhythm section with in-your-face edge, a key change that turned out not to be followed seconds later by a key change that was a key change, and so on. Quite a striking record in fact. Both sides boasted fine vocal performances from Ral and no one would have guessed that he was still only 16. However, in spite of decent reviews in Cashbox and Billboard not too many punters picked up on it.

During this timeframe, Ral got himself a day job in Orlando in order to keep the wolf from the door. His next attempt to get his musical career going was to cut a set of demo tracks in a local small-time studio, with the intention of interesting a record label via these demos. He cut 7 vocal tracks and one instrumental. All the vocal tracks were covers, mainly of current material including 4 Elvis numbers, one from Conway Twitty, and two from Ray Charles (What’d I Say and Hallelujah I Love Her So). Of the Presley tracks, two were from the Elvis Is Back LP, the album which told the world that El was at long last out of the army (and sounding in mighty good spirits). One of those numbers was Girl Of My Best Friend which had been issued as a single in the UK but not in the US. And, as you’ll have guessed (or already know), it was that last number which got the interest.

Covering in its full sense of making and releasing a version of a record which had recently been released (and could be selling well) just wasn’t something that was done to Elvis Presley records in the late fifties and early sixties. That wasn’t out of any sense of honour between labels and/or artists. Nope, it was purely that the Presley record was guaranteed to sell whilst ‘the opposition’ would sink. There’s an irony too with this particular song in that it wasn’t first recorded by EP. It initially appeared in 1959 from an obscure gent called Charlie Blackwell and a second version (with a different arrangement) appeared from an even more obscure gent called Marty Vine in 1960. The Presley version was originally cut purely for Elvis Is Back. The single release of the track in the UK only came about because of copyright issues delaying the availability of El’s It’s Now Or Never single. British RCA, anxious to get more Presley product out, coupled A Mess Of Blues, the original flip of It’s Now Or Never, with Girl Of My Best Friend extracted from the LP. Ral’s record wasn’t released in the UK which was eminently sensible because the Presley pairing, A Mess Of Blues / Girl Of My Best Friend, got to #2 in our chart.

Apologies if the above para was on the lengthy side but I felt the circumstances of Ral’s release of Girl Of My Best Friend warranted spelling out. The record label owner who was lucky or, more likely, sharp enough to get his hands on Ral and arrange to cut and release the record, was George Goldner and his label was Gone Records. And the record? Well, if you’ve never heard and don’t know the original well (or at all), give Ral a listen. Could you be fooled into thinking that was Elvis? Even a semi-Elvis fan would probably say no, because he/she would know the original and, while Ral was likely to have been putting on his best Elvis hat (and sneer perhaps), the backing group don’t make much of an attempt to replicate the backing sound; indeed, they sound considerably less sophisticated than Presley’s backing crew. For me this accounts for part of the attraction of the Donner record; the Elvis attributes like the “uh huh huh’s” are retained and seem to stand out more against the minimalist backdrop.

The US public liked it judging by the fact that it squeezed into the Top Twenty hitting the #19 position. Should I talk about the ethics of this cover job or isn’t that relevant given what actually went on, not to mention the fact that neither El nor his label lost out financially? One could argue that it was a compliment. What it did do was paint Ral into something of a corner. Unless he removed the Elvis-isms from his voice then he would from then on be seen as an Elvis soundalike only. Which of course was all somewhat hypothetical because George Goldner wasn’t going to let go of a gift horse just like that.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It), Gone single number three from Ral – number two was only in existence for a few days before it was effectively zapped by #3 which even had the same serial number – was his biggie: #4 in the US and #25 in the UK. It was a semi-ballad but suggestive of early soul. Terry Wilson – see Footnotes – makes an interesting observation: “The song was done in the same ‘groove’ as Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart”. Jerry Butler was one of Ral’s favorite singers.”

I’m sure it’s been said before but, metaphorically speaking, I feel that Elvis would have killed to have got hold of that song.

Ral continued recording for Gone through 1961; his final sessions were held in New York in November that year. 10 singles and an album entitled Takin’ Care Of Business were released prior to his switch to Reprise, of which more later. A goodly number of tracks were left ‘in the can’. These have seen the light of day as the years have rolled by, most comprehensively on the 1991 release from Sequel: The Complete Ral Donner 1959-1962. Without wishing to decry Ral’s later work which was spread over a range of labels, I have taken the decision to make my ten selections purely from the Gone era since it’s that period which is most loved by his fans with some justification.

Before diving in, one or two comments are in order. Many of Ral’s tracks from the Gone sojourn are either ballads or mid-tempo tracks which display attributes of both ballads and rockers. Occasionally, Ral went for the tougher more gut-wrenching Elvis style numbers like Pray For Me but his typical output was more polite. Straightforward rockers were relatively rare. When they did appear they were in that toned-back late 50s/early 60s mode not real mid 50s rock or rockabilly. This was probably just as well since the session guys and production team weren’t exactly the bees knees at creating real rock and roll. Examples are Nine Times Out Of Ten and Creampuff which almost redeemed itself when the lead guitarist gave us a surprisingly aggressive break. (The tracks below are in recording order, ‘unreleased’ signifies not released at the time but available via relatively recent collections, TCOB is the Takin’ Care Of Business LP.)

Standing Here (unreleased) – Restrained ballad fare from Ral without the Elvis tropes being too overt. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t see release during the Gone period. It came from the first studio session after the initial one which produced “Best Friend” so maybe Ral was still trying to settle on his approach.

To Love (single) – The flip side of the single that got withdrawn to make way for You Don’t Know What You’ve Got and one that more than suggested that whoever was responsible for the song selection and arrangement had noted the success that Presley had with It’s Now Or Never. The overall Mediterranean feel is complemented by swirling strings, a relatively rare presence on Donner records.

School Of Heartbreakers (single) – A gentle chugger with a sound that’s very reminiscent of El’s early RCA days with a Floyd Cramer soundalike on piano.

She’s My Baby (TCOB) – Tucked away on the LP which probably accounts for the more experimental approach. Dominated by bass with bursts of drums and guitar, it’s a good ominous-sounding rocker, largely single chord based so unusual for the time.

Please Don’t Go (single) – A slow rocker rather than ballad, and just the sort of bluesy affair that Presley would have gone for. Note the occasional groan which is more Twitty-like than El inspired, but the flurries of vocal during the gaps definitely come straight from Presley. This is another example of the tougher side of Ral which the buyers seemed to like since it achieved a #39 chart position.

I Don’t Need You (TCOB) – A very ‘out there’ kind of ballad which George might have reckoned was a tad too heavy for teenie record buyers so it never found single release. Ral gives vent to his full range of vocal attributes with not all being Presley inspired; there’s even a touch of falsetto towards the end. Would that this had found 45 release and Ral’s career might have taken a different approach altogether.

(What A Sad Way) To Love Someone (single) – Compared to the last track, a much more conventional ballad with everything understated, even the strings which float in and out, are well distanced from Ral’s agony. The latin flavour helps to give this track something of the ambiance that Atlantic achieved with people like Ben E. King. Probably my favourite Ral track marred only slightly by that recitation which I could happily have done without.

She’s Everything (single) – From his final Gone recording session in November 1961 and would you have guessed that a new star, with a name not unlike Ral Donner, had issued his debut single in February that same year and that that single had become a smash hit with more following? The record, of course, was Runaway from Del Shannon, a mould-breaker if ever I’ve heard one. This wasn’t a crib but it had elements of the Shannon style beginning inevitably with that irritating keyboard/organ – Farfisa? – sound which hits you right from the start and continuing with the long unwinding melody line plus the multiplicity of vocal tropes deployed by Ral. I’ve never decided whether I really like this track or not but I have to take my hat off to the guys for trying. The single gave Ral his best chart placing – number 18 – since You Don’t Know What You’ve Got. Which was somehow fitting since this came from his final session and he would break up with the Goldner management regime early on in the following year.

In March 1962, Ral had a phone conversation with George Goldner wherein he refused to go to New York for the next scheduled recording session due to unpaid royalties. The dispute rumbled on without any further recording and Ral moved to Reprise Records at the tail end of ’62. His biggest seller for the label was the Diddley beat, I Got Burned but it only made 124 nationally (though it did reach number one in Vancouver).

After Reprise he went to Fontana, then to Red Bird, then to Mid Eagle, then to Rising Sons, then to M.J., then to Sunlight, then to Chicago Fire, etc, etc. with zero continuity (of course) but still managed to put out isolated but interesting records, like:

– the self-written Lost (Mid-Eagle 1968)

If I Promise (Rising Sons 1968)

– the soul styled, Don’t Let It Slip Away (Sunlight 1972)

– and its flip, the equally good Wait A Minute Now

– and The Wedding Song (Chicago Fire 1974)

In 1978, after the death of Elvis, Ral came out with a tribute, the self-penned, The Day The Beat Stopped but for me it wasn’t one to fire up those memory cells. Better by far was the release a year later featuring two numbers associated with El: Don’t Leave Me Now, one of the lesser tracks from Jailhouse Rock and Rip It Up, a Little Richard number cut by El. It was recorded in Nashville and the musical support included Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana plus the Jordanaires. This is the A-side:

Clearly, he was still in very good voice and we would seem to have come almost full circle.

In 1977, Ral started to feel unwell but the source went misdiagnosed for years. Eventually he died on 6th April 1984 of lung cancer.

Final thoughts? I could be accused of taking something of a fence-sitting stance throughout much of this post but I should come clean and admit that I find attractions in much of what Ral recorded at Gone. In an AllMusic review of one of the Donner compilations, Bruce Eder stated: “… this two-CD, 39-song collection would be, for Elvis Presley fans, the greatest body of songs that the King of Rock & Roll never cut.” That might be a tad OTT but it does get to the root of the appeal.

I’d add that I find the fact that Ral never managed to parlay his initial work at Gone into a genuine singing career, minus the Elvis attributes, rather sad. Twitty managed to do it via his move to country music. One can only surmise that this path held no attraction for Ral or that the right doors didn’t open.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Much of the information in the early paragraphs comes from the Ral Donner biography put together by Terry Wilson, a British fan whose “interest in Ral’s music began in 1968 in England when I purchased a record collection that amongst other rarities included 4 Ral Donner singles on UK pressings (3 on Parlophone and 1 on Stateside)”. Terry acknowledges the help given to him by Ral’s son, Ral Jr. Some of the information appearing in this document also appears elsewhere but I get the distinct impression that this is the key source that others have drawn from.

2. Composers Gerald Nelson and Fred Burch made their name with Thomas Wayne’s Tragedy which was the first song of any note that they wrote and one would imagine that it’s because of that song that Ral sought them out in Memphis. Both went on to write more songs either singly or with other writers. Possibly the most well-known number that either of the pair wrote, apart from Tragedy, was Strange which was on the flip side to Patsy Cline’s She’s Got You.

3. I was vague about the date of the Pepper Studio session which produced That’s All Right With Me / Tell Me Why. The reason was (and is) because Terry Wilson has it as “early February 1959” while Praguefrank says it was “Ca July 1959”. At least the year was the same.

4. I was tempted to award the accolade of a top ten spot to Ral’s That’s All Right With Me but stayed my hand due to a slightly later version from Memphis rockabilly man Ray Smith. It appeared with its title reduced to That’s Alright on the flip side of Ray’s one and only hit, Rockin’ Little Angel.

5. George Goldner hasn’t put in too many appearances in rock and roll history books as a behind the scene mover and shaker but he was a significant character nevertheless. Operating out of New York and starting out in music via the acquisition and running of dance clubs, he went on to found or co-found a host of labels. In the main he specialised in doo wop and was responsible for the early hits from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Little Anthony and the Imperials. A single which is sometimes referred to as “the first rock and roll record” or “the first doo wop record”, 1953’s Gee from the Crows had George’s hands all over it.

6. The reason for the rapid disappearance of Gone Ral Donner single #2 from the market emerges in an interview held by big fan Rip Lay which was published in “Goldmine” in 1979:

“He (George Goldner – DS) 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.”

7. In 1979 after cutting Don’t Leave Me Now / Rip It Up, Ral also made a major contribution to a larger Presley tribute. He narrated and sang the 50 Elvis songs on the double LP, 1935-1977: I’ve Been Away For Awhile Now. Moore, Fontana and the Jordanaires were involved again.

8. In the words of Terry Wilson:

“Ral had met Elvis twice and if there ever was a mutual admiration society – this was it. Ral adored Elvis and Elvis complimented Ral on his version of “Girl Of My Best Friend” as well as some of his other songs. Elvis told Ral that “To Love Someone” was one of the best songs he had ever heard!”

 

 

Ral Donner photo 2

 

Ral Donner photo 3

 

Ral Donner photo 4

Above photos: Everly Brothers Tour 1965: Ral (centre) with the Gents and Don and Phil – see the Picture Galleries on the official Ral Donner site for more detail – followed by Ral with Chuck and Jerry Lee

 

Ral Donner performs Cinderella Twist along with The Millionaires in the 1962 short film “Twist Craze” (aka “Dance Craze”)

 

Ral Donner (1943–1984)

 

The Official Ral Donner Website

Ral Donner at 45cat

Ral Donner biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #918

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 23, 2020

    Thanks for this fascinating piece Dave. ‘(What A Sad Way) To Love Someone’ is a really fine song. He sounds so like Elvis at times on it for the resemblance to be uncanny. Thanks again.

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 25, 2020

      Many thanks for your comments Andrew. It looks as if Ral’s name wasn’t recognised and/or the Elvis clone thing put people off. Maybe I should have withheld that for several paragraphs. However I’m of the view that Ral shouldn’t be totally dissed because that’s what he did for a living. As you say, “(What A Sad Way) To Love Someone” was a good song and a good record (and better than rather a lot made by El particularly when you include some of those film tracks).

  2. David Lewis
    Nov 26, 2020

    I called your Gram Parsons topper possibly your best. While it still probably is, articles like this show just how difficult it is to pick a ‘best’ of yours. Thoroughly enjoyed it, and learned about an act I have on an obscure compilation. Thanks again Dave.

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