There is a town just north of Carbondale called DuQuoin, home to something called the DuQuoin State Fair. My whole life growing up I assumed the DuQuoin State Fair had some connection to the Illinois State Fair – perhaps it was the state fair for folks who felt it was too much to drive the four hours to Springfield. It turns out that is exactly what it is, but it has nothing to do with the Illinois State Fair at all. It is a private business that made a habit of being open the week after the Illinois State Fair, and grabbing some of the rides and atrractions in the process, who only had to move a few hours down the road to keep working. It’s a brilliant plan that I only figured out in the past few years.
The salad days for the DuQuoin State Fair were from 1957 to 1980, when it was host to a very prestigious horse race known as The Hambletonian, which is the first leg of the harness racing triple crown. The race has been around since 1926 and for most of its career it was run either in the state of New York or in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s currently run in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ. But for 23 years, up until I was 14 years old, it was held in good old DuQuoin, Illinois, population 5,761. For a few years in the late 70s, the race was broadcast live on ESPN making it, officially, the biggest sporting event in the history of southern Illinois. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that in the late 70s, ESPN was also showing tractor pulls and dog jumping competitions — anything, really. But it was still national TV – in DuQuoin!
My criteria for attendance for concerts at the DSF boiled down to one thing: if I had ever heard of them, which was not a given. If I could name a couple of their songs, that was a more-than-sufficient resume for southern Illinois concert goers. One year I scraped together a few dollars to go see Ronnie Milsap, who had been successful enough on the country charts to have some of his records make the top 20 on the pop charts as well. He had easily cleared the bar for my patronage.
I walked into the concert that night not knowing much about him, other than he was blind and had a couple of pop hits. When it was over, it was one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen. I sat there mesmerized by his musical talents, by all the different styles of music he could play. By his voice. I heard country music, soul music, 50s doo-wap, big band songs — he could do it all. He even got up once and danced withone of his back up singers – lifts and tosses! I left that night a forever fan of the amazing musical talent of Ronnie Milsap, and it continues to this day.
His story is remarkable, too remarkable to recount fully. Abandoned by his mother, he was raised by his grandparents in the Smoky Mountains. He was a pupil at the North Carolina State School for the Blind in Raleigh since the age of 5, which had an incredible music program. He turned down an opportunity to be the first blind law student ever at Emory University, choosing instead a life on the road, trying to be a rock and roll singer. After ten years of trying, he found himself one night playing a gig and was told that the great Charley Pride was in the house that night. He broke from his normal set and played a couple of Charley’s hits as a tribute. After the show, Charley Pride came backstage and told Ronnie that he had a future in country music. Charley took him around Nashville to meet some folks, and the rest is history. Forty #1 hits later, Ronnie Milsap is one of the legendary country artists of all time. I’m so glad someone in his management team made him play the DuQuoin State Fair.
In his career, Ronnie Milsap was a tireless advocate of blind students learning Braille, rather than just relying on books on tape. He is huge user and advocate of assistive technology for the blind – it has always helped him stay in contact with his fans. He has been an inspiration to blind and visually impaired people all over the world.
This is one of his biggest hits, and one of my favorite songs by him. It was written by Burt Bacharach and was originally a hit for R&B singer Chuck Jackson. Ronnie took it, made it his own, and had a #1 hit with it. What other country artist could take a Burt Bacharach song to the top of the charts? Legend. Today’s Friday spotlight is the wonderful Ronnie Milsap.