Unsung Guitar Greats: Mick Ronson
While perhaps best known as one of David Bowie’s head “Spiders” from Mars, guitarist Mick Ronson is a renown song writer, multi-instrumentalist, solo performer, arranger, and producer whose talents were enlisted by Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter, Van Morrison, John Mellencamp, Morrissey, Elton John, Lou Reed, Roger McGuinn, Meatload, David Johansen, and Roger Daltrey--and that just scratches the surface.
Michael "Mick" Ronson was born on May 26, 1946, in Beverley Road, Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, England.
As a child, Mick was trained in classical piano and violin, and then moved on to a number of other instruments throughout his life. Initially wanting to be a cellist, he picked up the guitar after hearing the music of Duane Eddy, whose use of the bass notes on his guitar reminded Mick of the cello.
Joining his first band, the Mariners, in 1963 at the age of 17, Mick's stage debut was as the opening act for the Keith Herd Band at Brough Village Hall. While working with the Mariners, the Crestas, another local Hull group, recruited Mick, gaining a sizable following and making regular appearances at local halls.
In ‘65, Mick left the Crestas to venture out on his own in London. Before long, he teamed up with a band called the Voice. After the Voice inexplicably split for the Bahamas, Mick teamed up briefly with a soul band called the Wanted, before eventually returned to Hull.
In ‘66, Mick joined Hull's top local band, the Rats, playing the local circuit and making a name for himself in London and Paris. The following year the Rats recorded a psychedelic-oriented song called "The Rise And Fall Of Bernie Grippleston.” His guitar work on this got him a gig playing on Michael Chapman's Fully Qualified Survivor album. This led to the break Mick had been waiting for.
When bass player John Cambridge left the Rats, he was replaced by Mick’s long-time friend Mick "Woody" Woodmansey, who brought Mick in to do session work with Elton John on the groundbreaking Tumbleweed Connection, with Mick playing guitar on "Madman Across the Water.” Although this song was not included in the original release, it opened the door for Mick to be recognized by England’s community of rock musicians.
Early in 1970, Mick was asked to join a new David Bowie back-up band called the Hype. The Hype played their first gig at The Roundhouse in February, beginning the costume-oriented show that would come to define Bowie, with Bowie dressing as “Rainbowman,” and Mick as “Gangsterman.”
That same month they opened for America’s Iron Butterfly at the Basildon Arts Centre in Essex, billed as “David Bowie's New Electric Band.” In April, Mick began work on Bowie's first masterpiece, The Man Who Sold The World album. With the inception of the “Spiders from Mars” personae, history was made and the course of music forever changed with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on which Mick played a vital, creative role.
In 1972, Mick provided strings and brass arrangement for the song "Sea Diver" on the Bowie produced All The Young Dudes album with Mott The Hoople, and co-produced Lou Reed's album Transformer with Bowie, playing lead guitar and piano on "Perfect Day.” That same year he played on the country-rock album Bustin' Out by Pure Prairie League, where he undertook string ensemble arrangements and contributed guitar and vocals on several tracks including "Angel #9" (which also reappeared on his solo album Play Don't Worry).
Leaving Bowie's entourage after the "Farewell Concert" in 1973, Mick released the first of three solo albums including Slaughter on 10th Avenue, featuring a version of Elvis Presley's, "Love Me Tender,” and Mick’s most famous solo track, "Only After Dark.” (This was followed by Play Don't Worry in 1975 and Heaven and Hull in 1994.) Mick then had a short-lived stint with Mott the Hoople, becoming a long-time collaborator with Ian Hunter, providing his skills on the super-popular rock & roll anthem, "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," which reached #14 on UK singles charts.
In 1974, Mick was voted the #2 spot in Creem magazine’s best guitarist of the year, beating out Eric Clapton--who took #3--with Zepplin's Jimmy Page taking first place. Then in 1976 he contributed guitar work to the title track of the David Cassidy release Getting It in the Street, and the following year the Who’s Roger Daltrey brought Mick in to play on his 1977 solo release One of the Boys.
In 1982, Mick worked with John Mellencamp on his American Fool album, providing the notable guitar work on "Jack & Diane" (as well as suggesting the baby rattles). Both "Jack & Diane" and American Fool topped the US Billboard charts.
In later years, Mick went on to work with many other acts including Morrissey (producing Your Arsenal), The Wildhearts, The Rich Kids, Elton John, John Mellencamp, T-Bone Burnett, Dalbello, Benny Mardones, Iron City Houserockers, and the Italian band Moda. He was also a member of Bob Dylan's super-group, the Rolling Thunder Revue and can be seen both on and off-stage in the film of the tour. He also linked up with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds during this time, which led to his producing and contributing guitar work and arrangements on McGuinn's 1976 solo album Cardiff Rose.
In 1992 Mick performed at "The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert" where he performed "All the Young Dudes" with Bowie and Hunter, and "Heroes" with Bowie. Mick's final recording session was a guest spot on the 1993 Wildhearts album Earth vs the Wildhearts, where he provided the lead break for the song "My Baby is a Headfuck.”
Mick Ronson died of liver cancer on April 29, 1993 at the age of 46. He was named the 64th greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Images via Wikipedia.org except where credited otherwise (with my appreciation)
Visit JAMES R. COFFEY WRITING SERVICES & RESOURCE CENTER for more information