"Thanks for remembering Ral ... God bless you!"
- Tommy Roe
"Ral had a truly beautiful quality to his voice; a controlled vibrato that to this day gives me chills" - Lou Martucci
"He was a great friend and a great entertainer" - Jim Sprandel
"If only Elvis had recorded the songs Ral had!" - Jon Tess
"There was a real touch of class in Ral's voice" - Judy Mahoney
"Ral was the best and of course all Elvis fans love him" - Paul Dowling
"When I first heard Ral I thought this guy sure sounds like Elvis!" - Steve Alaimo
The Ral Donner Story ...''Setting.the record straight'....by Terry Wilsonby
Ralph Stuart Emanuel Donner was born on February 10th 1943 in the Norwood Park area of Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. to proud parents Ralph and Kathryn Donner. The name Emanuel was chosen in honor of the doctor who delivered him - Dr. Emanuel Wexler. Dr. Wexler was also a good friend of the Donner family. Ral was the youngest of four children having 2 brothers Ron and Bill and one sister Joyce. Ral's dad Ralph was of German descent and his mom Kathryn (a.k.a. Jewel) was Italian.
Ral's career began at the early age of 3 or 4 when he would entertain family and friends with his Al Jolson impersonation complete with black face, floppy bow tie and white gloves etc. The musical Donner family would gather around a piano in the evenings harmonizing to the songs of Al Jolson and Russ Columbo. The highlight of Ral's early career occurred in 1951 with his rendition of "It Is No Secret" which was performed at a "Youth For Christ Rally" at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. The rally was taped and broadcast on WMBI Radio Chicago later the same day. Stuart Hamblen who had written and recorded the song had performed it at Orchestra Hall the previous week. When Ral performed the song he was made up to look like C & W star Hamblen with cowboy boots, pants, shirt, necktie and even a Hopalong Cassidy hat! The performance got off to a rather shaky start though. The accompanist had twice begun the tune but got no response at all from Ral. A savior came from the crowd of three thousand with a crate so that Ral could reach the pulpit microphone! Between the ages of 11 and 13 Ral sang in the Norwood Park Baptist Church choir. In 1954 the choir was featured on WGN TV (Chicago) when eleven year old Ral made his TV debut singing "The Old Rugged Cross".
At age 12 Ral sang at school assemblies singing hits of the time such as "Dungaree Doll" and "Rock And Roll Waltz". The next year, 1956, came crashing in with tunes such as "Rock Around The Clock", "Heartbreak Hotel" and "My Baby Left Me". 13 year old Ralph was hooked by rock 'n' roll's boundless energy and emotional freedom. By this time he had learned to play piano, guitar and accordion. Ral graduated from Onahan Grammar School in June 1956 then in September he became a student at Taft High School in the Norwood Park area of Chicago. Ral's first public appearance as a Rock'n'Roll singer took place on September 6, 1957 at a Taft High School Dance. Ral was accompanied on piano by John Sadler who had composed songs for Bing Crosby. In the fall of 1957 Ral and some fellow High School students formed a rock 'n' roll band - The Rockin' Five (Ral, Al Sears, Jim Szott, Jack Burke, Phil Foss and Doug Cyrex). The group debut was on November 1st 1957 at a Taft High social. They played at high school dances and also entered local amateur talent contests - they won first prize at several of these contests. Ral cut his first demo record on January 3rd 1958 - an acetate recording of "Miss Ann" b/w "Oh Boy!" credited to Ralph Donner and the Rockin' Five.
"Miss Ann" and "Oh
Boy!" were recorded in Chicago in a studio but I'm not sure of the studio
name or address althought it might have been Universal. I know that I recorded
two Christmas songs with Ralph at Universal a couple of years later ("These
are the things that make up Christmas Day" and "Second Miracle").
The "Miss Ann" session did no go well. The recording engineer did nothing
to enhance the sound which came out dead and lifeless. We of course had never
been in a recording studio before and we were just kids so I guess we didn't know
what to expect. Also it was the late 50's and the instruments we took in were
three guitars and two drum sets (actually one and a half drum sets since Doug
really didn't play much on drums). In retrospect we needed to use a Kay bass that
I think Jack had and ask for some reverb on the sound. The Christmas tunes were
much more professional and actually pretty cool.
- Al Sears October 19th 2006.
The band continued to play at high school dances and were invited by The Taft Entertainment Committee to perform at a dance held on January 17, 1958 (his third appearance). Ral performed during a dance titled "The Jailhouse Rock" while dressed in a prison get-up à la Elvis Presley from the MGM movie "Jailhouse Rock". The band was also booked to play weekend matinees at Chicago's Club Hollywood - an upscale dinner club on Chicago's northwest side. The first engagement was on December 22, 1957 with subsequent matinees on January 12, 20 & 26. The Club's Entertainment Director Janie Newcombe was successful in getting the group their first "club date" for the evening show on February 1st, 1958. Although this was primarily an adult audience and therefore more subdued than the teenagers, Ral and the band were very well received. While performing at Club Hollywood on January 20 the group was spotted by a television producer who signed them up for "Time For Teens" a proposed live TV show to be broadcast from Chicago's famous Chez Paree on weekends. The show was hosted by America's oldest teenager - Stan Howard. Ral's first appearance was on Sunday afternoon February 9, 1958 (the eve of his 15th birthday) and afterwards the group played every Sunday afternoon for eight weeks until March 30 to a full house, all-teenage audience performing current hits such as "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck". Ral gained quite a following and after the March 16th performance he needed a police guard of three on his dressing room door to keep out overly exuberant fans. A "trial" recording for TV was made on this date and the tape sent to New York. Ral's performances were enhanced by the beautiful backup vocal work of a black quartet called "The Medallionaires". They sounded like a very "soulful" version of The Jordanaires on ballads and added a fine blues touch on the up-tempo numbers. Together they brought the house down. Up to this point the show had not been televised as it was still in the proposal stage. The first "live" televised performance by Ral was on Sunday afternoon April 26 and another "live" televised performance featuring Ral was on June 21. Ral was becoming well known in the Chicago area and The Chicago Sun-Times helped by featuring him in their "Kup's Column". On March 12 "Kup's" had reported that Ral had been discovered by Sammy Davis Jr., on April 2nd another article was published and on April 24 it was reported that Ral would appear on the "Big Beat Rock'n'Roll Show" at the Chicago Opera House.
The Chez Paree night club drew the elite entertainers of the day such as Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and Sammy Davis Jr. Sometimes the headline performers would stop by "Time For Teens" to do a song or two. On the afternoon of March 2nd Sammy Davis dropped by. After Ral finished his last song Sammy went up on stage and paid him a great compliment, he said to the audience "That man is too much!". Later backstage he told Ral that he was great and that he hoped that Elvis would get to see him and that Elvis would really enjoy it. He also said that he would call Steve Allen and get him on the Allen TV show as well as inviting Ral and the band to appear with him on the evening floor show the following week. On March 9th Ral had played "Time For Teens" and was mobbed by over enthusiastic teens after the show and had to be rescued by police. Later the same day he played the evening show becoming possibly the youngest entertainer ever to appear on the Chez Paree stage. During the month of March Ral signed a contract with Chez Paree Artists Inc. by whom Ral would now be managed. Sammy Davis had also invited the band to appear with him, Redd Foxx, Fran Warren and Steve Allen at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York on April 11, 1958. Ral became one of the first white entertainers and possibly the youngest at age fifteen ever to play at the Apollo. Later Sammy told Ral, "Kid, that was quite a feat". A little more than two weeks later on April 26, 1958 Ral and the band were booked to appear on Alan Freed's "Big Beat Rock'n'Roll Show" when it played at the Chicago Civic Opera House. The show included The Diamonds, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and The Crickets and Jerry Lee Lewis. On August 4, 1958 Ral was presented with the grand prize given by the Al Dvorin Agency for winning the Harlem-Irving Plaza Chamber of Commerce talent contest. The Rockin' Five disbanded around the summer of 1958.
Ral's second group "Ral Donner and the Gents" was formed in the fall of 1959. The Gents were Jack Burke (guitar), Jimmy Rice (drums), J. Tom Miller and Earl Wenzel. Other musicians played with Ral over the years namely Earl Hensley (bass), Joe Madrid (keyboards) and Dan Pawlak (drums). Ral met all three during 1958/59 and they, together with Jack Burke, played for him throughout the years until the early 1980's - on the road as well as on some of the Chicago-based studio recordings. Later (mid-1960s) Tom Brenner replaced Dan Pawlak on drums. Ral and Jack were good friends - the two pals had attended Onahan Grammar School together prior to Taft High. Another student at Taft High from 1956 to 1960 was Jim Jacobs. When Jim wrote the musical "Grease" he based it on his alma mater Taft High. The name of the school was changed to Rydell High as were the names of the real life people upon which Jim based his characters. In the movie the teen rock 'n' roll idol Johnny Casino (played by a member of the group Sha Na Na) is actually a portrayal of Ral Donner! Ral was influenced by several artists. There was always music playing at the Donner household. The most influential artists were Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Dean Martin. Ral's brother Ron collected Bing Crosby records and young Ral collected Frank Sinatra. In later years Ral would include the Bee Gees as one of his favorite acts while still appreciating Frank Sinatra. Ral was also influenced by early black groups such as "The Ink Spots", "The Platters", "Lee Andrews and the Hearts", "The Five Satins", "Harvey and the Moonglows", "The Flamingos" and "Shep and the Limelites". Ral wore out the vinyl on Dion's "Where Or When" and "That's My Desire" as well as "Church Bells May Ring" by the Diamonds. Another strong influence was the deep velvet sounds of Jerry Butler, a fellow Chicagoan. The greatest influence of all was one Elvis Presley. Ral idolized Elvis and had all his records. When Elvis made his initial appearance in Chicago at the International Amphitheater in 1957 fourteen year old Ral was in attendance. Ral would forever remember the incredible excitement that Elvis generated that night.
In the summer of 1958 Ral ran into problems with local management at the Chez Paree. Ral's sister Joyce was married and living in Florida so on August 8th Ral headed south to stay with her. On August 15 just seven days after his arrival in Florida Ral was invited to appear on the Andy Wilson TV Show. Although the format of the show was Country and Western, Ral sang Rock'n'Roll and was well received. The next day Ral auditioned for the "Five Owls TV Show" (another Country and Western style program) and he was asked to perform on their afternoon radio show that day (Saturday) and to come back on Wednesday night to appear on the television show. Ral was offered a steady job on the TV show where he made a total of four appearances (the first on August 20 1958, two in March 1959 and the last on April 23 1959). August 1958 also saw Ral make his 2nd appearance on Andy Wilson TV Show on the 29th and an appearance on "Channel Nine Bandstand" TV Show in Orlando on the 30th. September saw Ral making numerous appearances in the Orlando area.
In October Ral traveled from Florida to Memphis. While in Memphis Ral made contact with Gerald Nelson and Fred Burch, the songwriting team who had hit it big with "Tragedy" recorded by Thomas Wayne. They agreed to write songs for Ral and to produce him as long as a financial backer could be found. Ral also wrote quite a few songs during the winter of 1958-1959 and throughout his stay in Florida. In January 1959 Ral cut four original demos in preparation before making his first record (two were his own compositions). He got a backer and in early February 1959 headed back to Memphis where "Tell Me Why" and "That's All Right With Me" (both Nelson - Burch compositions) were recorded at Pepper Recording Studios. Ral had recorded his first record just a few days before his 16th birthday! The backup musicians included Bill Black on bass. There are rumors that Ral auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records at this time but there is no evidence to support this. Ral returned to Florida then headed home to Chicago in May, got a job with Steve Frankel's Landscaping Service and waited for his first record to be released. Finally on October 12th 1959 the two songs were issued on Scottie 1310. Scottie was a small label based in Atlanta, Georgia. The record was favorably reviewed in Billboard and Cashbox in October. Ral promoted the record via "Jim Lounsbury's** Record Hop" TV show and by various appearances in Chicago and the surrounding area and he also went on a promotional tour in November for Scottie in Florida with several other acts including Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones. Despite being well promoted the record failed to sell. Ral had put together a new band towards the end of 1959 called "Ral Donner and the Gents" and they made various appearances through the spring and summer of 1960. Ral got a job during the summer as a pressman's helper at Alligator Press in Skokie, Illinois as well as continuing to play with the band.
During the summer of 1960 Ral's brother-in-law Bob Williams in Florida got a line on a local studio that was willing to record him. The Fox Talent Recording Studio was located on West Colonial Drive in Azalea Park east of Orlando was a hole-in-the-wall complete with egg crates for sound proofing. Ral returned to Florida in the autumn armed with demo recordings of "Girl Of My Best Friend", "Beachcomber" (the Conway Twitty tune), "Fame And Fortune", "Hallelujah I Love Her So", "Mess Of Blues", "Reconsider Baby" and "What'd I Say". These demos had been recorded at MSS Recording Studio in Chicago in the spring of 1960 with "The Gents". Besides the seven vocals an instrumental "Bad Sound From Chi Town" had also been recorded. The producers (Jan Hutchins & Prewitt Rose) at the Talent Studio just flipped over "Girl Of My Best Friend" and suggested that he recut it. Ral didn't want to record an Elvis tune as no-one else had dared to do it. Ral didn't mind singing Elvis tunes on a local level as part of his shows as they were fun but he didn't want to do Elvis songs on a national level. The producers insisted and assured Ral that it was OK as RCA in the U.S.A. had not issued it as a single (RCA in England had it out on 45 where it was a number one hit). Three songs were recorded the morning of Monday October 10, 1960: "Girl Of My Best Friend", "It's Been A Long Long Time" and "And Then". Another song "Loneliness Of A Star" was recorded at Talent but a different time. The backup musicians did session work at the studio - one group was a local trio called "The Starfires" (originally "Ron and the Starfires"). The Starfires also doubled as backup vocalists. The lineup at this time consisted of Tommy DiCicco on electric bass, a lead guitar player and a trumpet player (latter two names unknown). Jim Ward (rhythm guitar) and Terry "Scratch" Henry (drums) were 'borrowed' from another local group "The Tornados". The other two members of the group were Roy Dean Lallement (lead guitar) and Conrad Pierce (piano and vocals) - Conrad is on piano for "And Then" and "Loneliness Of A Star". "Girl Of My Best Friend" has the Starfires providing vocal backup, Dean Lallement on lead guitar, Tommy DiCicco on electric bass and Terry Henry on drums. Click here or the thumbnail to see a larger picture of the group. Recorded but not included on the final master tapes was Jim Ward on rhythm guitar. "It's Been A Long Long Time" was part of the session at the request of studio owner Gloria (Glory) Fox who was into big band music. The song and style doesn't suit Ral at all and is one of the very few Donner recordings one can justifiably cringe at. The next step was to find a record deal. Ral returned to Chicago for the holidays in December.
Jim Ward remembers the Florida sessions, click here --> Jim Ward Interview May 19th 1994 . The Interviewer is Jim's son David Ward. Notes: 1) The Rockmasters group that Jim refers to were still known as The Tornados at the time of Ral's sessions. 2) "You Don't Know What You've Got" was not recorded at that time but rather 7 months later at Criteria Studios in Miami. 3) Though "Girl of My Best Friend" did not fare that well in the south, it did very well in the north - particularly in Chicago.
At the end of 1960 Jan Hutchins took the 4 Talent Studio recordings to New York City with the intention of leasing them to a record label there. George Goldner was well known in the business for his musicianship and for his ability to get the best of an artist's talent into the grooves. After being turned down by Columbia Records Hutchins went to see Goldner. George was head of Gone Records (a division of Roulette Records) - he liked the songs and said "Leave the tapes with me and I'll see what I can do". Around this time (January 2, 1961) Ral recorded two songs for Goldner at Bell Sound Studios, NYC - "I Didn't Figure On Him" which ended up as the "B" side of his 3rd Gone single, whereas "Standing Here" remained canned for 17 years. "Girl Of My Best Friend" was issued on Gone 5102 on February 17, 1961. A few weeks later, in the windy city, no-one was more surprised than Ral to discover that he had a record out that was getting considerable airplay. The record took off like a rocket in Ral's home town of Chicago and he was front page news in The Chicago Tribune. In March Ral promoted the record on "Jim Lounsbury's Record Hop" TV show in Chicago as well as many other record hops in the area. March 25 was "Ral Donner Day" at the Harlem-Foster Record Center in Chicago as "Girl Of My Best Friend" sold more copies than any other single in their history. By April 15 the record reached number 2 in Chicago on WLS radio's Silver Dollar Survey. On April 23 the single entered Billboard's "Hot 100" chart reaching number 19 by June (no. 10 in Cashbox). Ral made his first appearance on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" TV show on May 5th singing "Girl Of My Best Friend".
Ral had never met George Goldner at this point let alone signed any contract with him. An appointment was set up on May 3 for Ral to meet Goldner in New York City to discuss future recordings and a recording contract. He told Ral about the importance of a strong follow up record and that it had to be better than the first, also to return to Florida to record enough material for an album at a proper studio such as Criteria in Miami. Before leaving for Florida Ral cut one song at Bell Sound Studios on May 12 - "To Love" was released from this session on Gone 5108 but was quickly recalled when it was realized that it was too much of a departure in style from it's predecessor. Later in May Goldner dispatched his assistant - Artie Ripp down to Florida to produce the album. Although Artie was supposed to produce the album, Ral and Artie didn't hit it off too well. Artie was everywhere but at the studio. Goldner called his friend Steve Alaimo in Florida on the phone and asked him to get over to Criteria and finish the album. Steve produced one of the best albums by any artist but got no credit for his efforts - most of the credit went to Artie Ripp. The biggest hit from the session "You Don't Know What You've Got" happened as an afterthought. Ral, Steve and the band were listening to demos looking for material to finish up the session when they came across one that read "submitted for the Angels - a girl group". Everyone started laughing but they all liked the tune so it was added to the session. 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.
The million selling "You Don't Know What You've Got" was released in June 1961 - it became Ral's biggest hit. It entered Billboard's "Hot 100" on July 16 climbing to number 4 by September 10th (no. 10 in Cashbox). It became a huge hit across the nation and was also issued in England (reaching no. 18), Canada (reaching no. 3) and other countries. In Chicago it reached number 3 by August 12th on WLS radio's Silver Dollar Survey. On June 7 Ral appeared on the Hines Hospital Disabled Veterans Benefit Show in Chicago, then on June 11 left for a four week tour with Tony Orlando, Cathy Jean and the Roomates and B. Bumble and the Stingers. Upon his return to Chicago he appeared with Jim Lounsbury at O'Hare Stadium on July 12. Ral was riding high, he had a 5 year contract with Gone and would soon have his first album released. Ral also made a total four appearances on Dick Clark's Bandstand - the hottest R'n'R show on TV at the time. Ral's second Bandstand show was on July 27. A second round of sessions at Criteria in Miami at the end of July through early August provided more than enough songs for the album. Steve Alaimo was again at the helm for what turned out to be Ral's last Florida sessions. Earlier in the year George had contracted a young and upcoming songwriter by the name of Doug Lapham to write songs especially suited to Ral's style. One of these "Please Don't Go" from the second Florida session was chosen as the 3rd single (the flip "I Didn't Figure On Him" was another Lapham composition). The single was issued September 13th 1961 and the much awaited 14 track album "Takin' Care Of Business" was released on September 25th. Both did well - the single got to number 39 on Billboard (number 30 on Cashbox) by November and the album sold well across the nation - it was also the "Spotlight Album of the Week" in Billboard at the end of September as well as "Pick of the Week" in Cashbox on October 7th.
On August 24 Ral flew to Pittsburgh to appear with Frankie Avalon, Bobby Vinton, Gene Pitney, Freddie Cannon and eighteen other artists at the KQV Radio Appreciation Day Show. The next day he began a 2 week engagement at Brooklyn's Paramount Theater on Murray the "K" Kaufman's Boss Holiday Show with Jackie Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Belmonts, the Chantels, Tony Orlando and others. From there it was off on September 7th to Los Angeles for KRLA Radio's "Who is the real Ral Donner contest" ( see Goldmine Interview ) and afterwards made a personal appearance at a party for the winner and awarded the prizes. Two days later Ral met Elvis for the first time at his Beverly Hills mansion ( see Goldmine Interview ). Ral said that Elvis was gracious, warm and friendly - a true gentleman. A 31 day tour began on September 26th with Bobby Vinton, Tony Orlando and Ray Stevens. Ral made his third appearance on Bandstand on November 20th and two days later departed for Clearwater, Florida for an 11 day southern tour. During November Ral returned to Bell Sound Studios, NYC. Eight songs were laid down for Gone including "She's Everything", "To Love Someone" and "Loveless Life". "She's Everything" was issued in November 1961 reaching number 18 on Billboard by February (number 10 on Cashbox) - it became Ral's 2nd biggest hit. On December 16 Ral was featured on the cover of Cashbox magazine. Personal appearances in December included Chicago's first teenaged nightclub "Teenland" on the 8th, Madison Wisconsin on the 15th and opening Pepsi-Cola's "Big Show" at Chicago's Medinah Temple on the 26th with Eddie Hodges, Johnny Tillotson, Solomon Burke, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Dion, Brenda Lee, The Marvellettes, The Casuals, Clay Cole, Vicki Spencer, Chuck Foote, The Uniques, Gary Stites and Frank Gari. "To Love Someone" is one of Ral's best recordings - one that Elvis should have recorded! (also Ral's personal favorite) but it only got to number 74 on Billboard on April 28 (number 79 on Cashbox) having been released in March 1962 - it was his last national (top 100) chart hit. "Loveless Life" released in May didn't fare as well, stopping short of the top 100 at 117.
Problems due to non-payment of royalties arose. In March 1962 Ral was scheduled to go to New York to record, he refused to go on the grounds that he had not been paid what was due to him. He was told that his current record "To Love Someone" would be pulled off the market if he didn't come to New York. Ral stayed in Chicago. He told George Goldner that he was tired of not being paid and would leave to go to another label. Goldner called Ral back and begged him to come back offering him the best songwriters, musicians and anything else he wanted. Ral still refused as he was fed up with being ripped off and he figured that part wouldn't change. What Ral didn't know was that Morris Levy (the head of Roulette Records) had been on an extension the whole time listening in. Levy cut into the conversation and told Ral that if he didn't record for them he would make sure that he wouldn't record for anyone else. Levy also told him he would spend whatever amount of money it took to make sure that he didn't have another hit record. Levy was a powerful man in the music business and had a great deal of influence. Ral took Goldner to Court in Chicago during the summer of 1962 where Ral was on home ground. Goldner was able to get the case transferred back to New York where he managed to break out of the 5 year contract. Ral's five year deal had shrunk to about 18 months. When Ral went looking for another label he found most doors closed. There were some exceptions - Mercury Records had actually contacted Ral and were exited at the prospect of having him on the label. Mercury didn't call again though - when Ral phoned to find out what was going on, the contact person there told him that he had no idea what he was talking about! Levy's connections were far and wide in the recording industry and beyond it. He had effectively managed to block Ral's career path.
A lot of Donner's best Gone recordings remained unissued due to legal red tape. Absolute gems such as "Half Heaven, Half Heartache" didn't see the light of day for 27 years! One of the author's favorites "Puddle Of Tears" also languished in the can for 17 years! Ral continued touring and making personal appearances. On April 6th he began a month long "Supersonic Tour" with Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Dion, The Drifters, Dee Clark, The Sensations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Solomon Burke and Barbara George. He also made personal appearances throughout May. In the last week of July Ral went on a 2 week USA/Canada tour with Bruce Channel, Ernie Maresca, Troy Shondell, Bobby Comstock and others. There were two shows in Canada that featured a different lineup - both featured Ral, Ernie Maresca, Troy Shondell and a local performer named Donny Burns. The first was on a Friday night at the Winnipeg Arena. The next day (Saturday) the performance was at the Trianon Ballroom in Regina, Saskatchewan. Ral had driven his two-door mauve color cadillac all the way from Chicago. Backing on both Canadian shows was provided by a local 3 piece Winnipeg band called The Club 63 Galaxies.
During the months of August and September, Ral, along with Mike Joseph and Jerry Levine, formed a new record production company called L'avenir. As part of this new venture Ral wrote (or co-wrote) five original songs. In October 1962 Ral recorded 2 songs for L'avenir at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago - they were "Second Miracle" and "Christmas Day". Later sessions for L'avenir included "I Got Burned" + "A Tear In My Eye" (January 1963), and "Run Little Linda" + "Beyond The Hearbreak" (June 1963) all six songs being produced by Mike Joseph. At least one L'avenir master remains unreleased (maybe three) - no song titles available on the unissued songs.
Ral was in need of another record label and what better than the one Frank Sinatra co-owned and recorded with - Reprise Records in Los Angeles! Although Elvis Presley was Ral's inspiration from an early age, it was Frank Sinatra that he admired the most. Frank had a way with words, the voice, the delivery - everything! With the two L'avenir seasonal recordings as part of the deal Ral signed a one year contract in November 1962. The next month Roulette Records went to court in an attempt to stop Reprise from selling Ral's records but were unsuccessful due to the efforts of the Reprise attorneys. The first single "Second Miracle/Christmas Day" was released in mid November. Reprise had recorded both songs with the intention of overdubbing both with a vocal group backing prior to release. This did not happen and the songs were released "as is", much to Ral's disappointment. When you listen to both songs they sound unfinished - like demonstration recordings. Ral, Mike and associates were invited by Reprise Records to be guests at the Villa Venice for the show on November 28 starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the person who jump started Ral's career - Sammy Davis Jr. While in L.A. Ral had met Elvis for the second time in October 1962 at his Bel-Air estate ( see Goldmine Interview ). "I Got Burned" - a fast paced Elvis style rocker was issued in February. In the spring of 1963 Ral returned to Los Angeles to record the 3rd single hoping that a different arrangement would help. The resulting single "I Wish This Night Would Never End" /"Don't Put Your Heart In His Hands" released in May 1963 was very well produced, it sounded different, but it still didn't sell! Glen Campbell was on rhythm guitar on both tracks. As it turned out the highest chart position reached on Reprise was 124 by "I Got Burned" in March 1963. The 4th and last single "Run Little Linda" issued in August 1963 bombed! The song was really "Runaround Sue" with different words. The best of the Donner compositions "Beyond The Heartbreak" is on the flipside of "Run Little Linda". If there ever was a single where one side was sizzling hot and the other stone cold - this is it! Ral had a way of ending some songs in a unique way. No-one else including Elvis could end a song the way Ral could. Just take a listen to the ending of "Beyond The Heartbreak" to see what I mean. Other good examples are "She's Everything" (Gone) and "Will You Love Me In Heaven" (Gone). Due to poor record sales which in turn were due to poor promotion, Ral was again without a recording contract.
During 1963 while still under contract with Reprise two other singles were released. The first one "To Love" b/w "Sweetheart" issued in spring 1963 was an out-of-contract final offering from Gone. It was a strange choice as "To Love" had previously been recalled in favor of "You Don't Know What You've Got" and although the flipside "Sweetheart" is listenable enough there was a stockpile of much stronger unreleased material in the vaults. The second 45 "And Then"/"Loneliness Of A Star" was issued on Prewitt Rose's TAU (West Palm Beach, Florida) label in June 1963. These two songs had been recorded at "The Girl Of My Best Friend" session three years earlier. Rose had kept the two masters and had decided to issue both songs - "And Then" received overdubbed instrumention which makes it slightly different to the Gone version. The single was poorly promoted and only sold well in the south. Ral continued to write and had formed "Ral Donner Music" on October 1st 1962 which had entered into an agreement with Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) as a BMI publisher. On November 14 1963 Ral signed a BMI agreement to become a writer. In the fall of 1963 he recorded original self-composed material at John Tolbart's Studio in Chicago. The songs included "Always The Clown", "Love Isn't Like That" and "Lost". The latter two were released in 1966 and 1968 respectively but "Always The Clown" and other songs remain unissued. Ral recorded at Tolbart's Studio at other times during the sixties and early seventies recording tunes such as "Life To Live Over" and the unissued "Deeper Shade Of Blue". In February 1963 Ral wrote a song for Joey Madrid "Mr. Lucky" that came out later that year on the U.S.A. label (an extremely hard record to find). Ral also wrote the flipside titled "See Saw". Joe(y) is featured on backup vocals on "Beyond The Heartbreak' - the haunting high voice at the end (fade out) is Joe. Donner demos of "Mr. Lucky" and "See Saw" probably exist but none have been found. Ral continued playing on the road on various tours culminating with the Everly Brothers tour of 1965 - his band members at this time were Jack Burke (guitar), Earl Hensley (bass guitar), Joe Madrid (piano & keyboards) and Dan Pawlak (drums). This lineup also backed Ral on the Chicago Reprise (L'avenir) sessions.
The years 1964 to 1976 saw Ral on a multitude of labels with one off (sometimes two) single releases per label. The most interesting is "Love Isn't Like That" on Red Bird from March 1966. The single sounds like it belongs on "Phil Spector's Greatest Hits" as the production is over the top (Phil Spector had nothing to do with this 45 though). What makes this single different is who owned the label - the one and only George Goldner! Why Ral would go back to record for Goldner after getting the short end of the stick four years earlier is hard to fathom. Maybe George made Ral an offer he couldn't refuse. As it turned out it didn't make any difference as Goldner had to liquidate everything he owned in August 1966 to pay off gambling debts which brought any prospect of future Ral Donner releases on Red Bird to a screeching halt! Another one off Red Bird artist Jimmy Rice does an excellent Ral Donner impersonation on "Spanish Perfume". Jimmy was the drummer in Ral's second group - The Gents. Both Fontana releases (4 sides) feature Scotty Moore on guitar, Ray Stevens on piano and the Jordanaires on backup vocals. The 1968 Rising Sons release "If I Promise" features Jerry Reed on lead guitar. The 1971 MJ single "My Heart Sings" (another candidate for inclusion on "Phil Spector's Greatest Hits") was masterminded by Mike Joseph. The late sixties through 1976 saw Ral producing most of his own material and recording locally at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago. Songs would be leased to local labels such as Sunlight or released on Ral's own labels (Mid-Eagle and Chicago Fire). Most of the singles released during this period only sold well in loyal Chicago where his records still received airplay. A lot of good material remains unreleased such as an excellent version of "Dream Lover" (the Bobby Darin hit). Ral ventured into other businesses in order to make ends meet, such as recording The Platters 'live' (for his own Chicago Fire label) at The Mint Julep in Chicago, he recorded several radio jingles, designed a discotheque (The Giraffe in Schiller Park, Illinois) and also wrote songs for other artists.
Ral had a wife (Linda) and a young son Ral who was born December 24th, 1972. The death of his mom Jewel in December 1976 affected him deeply. It would take Ral some time to collect his thoughts and to decide which direction he should go career-wise. Ironically, it was another tragic event on August 16th, 1977 that prompted Ral to go back into the recording studio. The news of Elvis Presley's death was everywhere, on all the TV channels, in all the newspapers, on all the radio stations, everywhere. Ral was shocked - he just couldn't believe that Elvis was gone. Ral's son knew something was wrong so he picked up his dad's guitar and started moving and shaking to try and cheer up his parents. Ral was so moved by little Ral's performance he knew that he had to make a tribute to his idol. 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! Jim Mydlach (who co-owned the Mid-Eagle and Chicago Fire labels with Ral) became Ral's manager. Ral wrote his Elvis tribute song and later in the year headed back to Universal Recording Studios in Chicago. "The Day The Beat Stopped" was done in one take. Ral was so emotional that further takes would have been impossible. It took all his strength and determination not to breakdown while recording this song. It would become one of his favorites. Thunder records released the single in early 1978 - it also was featured on the 1978 various artist LP "To Elvis - Love Still Burning".
Rip Lay in California is a one man Ral Donner Appreciation Society. Rip had been in contact with Ral for several years. After Ral came out with the Thunder record Rip contacted him to see if he would be interested in doing a single for his own Starfire label. Ral agreed and sessions were arranged in 1979. "Rip It Up" and "Don't Leave Me Now" is Ral Donner at his best. The Nashville session musicians included Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana and the Jordanaires. Ral added his vocals later to the Nashville session tapes at Steve Cronen's Starbeat Productions Studio in Dearfield, Illinois. A couple of Ral's earlier 45's were re-issued on Starfire and a compilation album "An Evening With Ral Donner" was released in 1982. February 28th 1979 saw the arrival of Ral's second son Erik. Later that year Mike Joseph called Ral with an idea for a play portraying the life of Elvis Presley. At the time there was a lot of negative publicity circulating about Elvis especially regarding his alleged dependance on prescription drugs. It really bothered Ral that people were bad mouthing Elvis and concentrating on negative things and forgetting the fact that he was a great Entertainer. The idea of a play was changed to a tribute album. The double album "1935-1977: I've Been Away For Awhile Now" was created by Mike Joseph. The recording sessions were held at Young'un Sound Inc. in Nashville. Scotty Moore was on lead guitar and also assisted with technical advice and with recording mixing. The sessions featured Nashville's best musicians including D.J. Fontana on drums, Bob Moore on bass and Jerry Tuttle on baritone sax. The Jordanaires provided vocal accompaniment. Ral narrates the Elvis Presley story told as if Elvis himself was the one telling it. Fifty Elvis tunes are performed - not all of them in their entirety. The story was written by Ral and Mike and was produced by Mike. The Mid-Eagle album was released in 1980 and was only available by mail order as was the late 1980 reissue on the Sessions label. Ral's career was beginning to get back on track.
In 1977 Ral started not feeling well. He made numerous visits to Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago where he was told there was nothing wrong with him or that he had a 'bad cold' or other mis-diagnosed illness. Ral knew that something was wrong. In the late spring of 1980 Ral developed a severe cough that just wouldn't go away - this went on for months. One night in late August 1980 at 4am Ral started coughing up blood - he went with his wife Linda to the emergency room at Swedish Covenant where they finally decided to take a chest x-ray. They found a spot in each lung (one large and one small) and Ral was told it could be a bad infection, T.B. or cancer and that it was probably the latter. It wasn't until a month later, while Ral was still in hospital, that the doctors confirmed that Ral did indeed have cancer and he was given 6 months to live. Ral's family was devastated - they wanted the best possible care for him. Ral's nephew Ron Donner helped Linda find out who was the best doctor to care for Ral and where they should take him. Ron was a big help then and afterwards. An extremely competant doctor by the name of L. Penfield Faber was consulted and Ral was transferred by ambulance to Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago. Ral underwent several operations and received the best possible care. If Ral's condition been correctly diagnosed years earlier he would probably still be with us today. Ral himself never gave up hope - he wanted to do the best he possibly could do for his family. In 1981 Ral jumped at the opportunity to be the spoken voice of Elvis in the Warner Brothers documentary "This Is Elvis" (the songs in the movie are all by Elvis). The last time Ral sang was on New Year's Eve 1983 while at home with his family - he sang "Auld Lang Syne".
click on above thumbnails of M.J. Suerth Funeral Home pamphlet for larger image (courtesy of Earl Hensley)
Ral passed away at the age of 41 on Friday April 6th 1984. The funeral service was held on Tuesday April 10th at Belmont Evangelical Church in Chicago. Jack Burke, Earl Hensley, Joey Madrid and Tommy Brenner were amongst the pallbearers - Ral Donner junior was honorary pallbearer. Ral had requested that his recording of "Second Miracle" be played during the service - it was his favorite song that he wrote. Ral was laid to rest in his hometown of Chicago. In December 1984 Linda Donner founded "The Ral Donner Second Miracle for Children Organization" - the first year it was held at Rush St. Lukes Hospital where Ral had received such excellent care. Ral had written "Second Miracle" after reading a newspaper article about a policeman who went blind but regained his sight. The song is about a blind boy who found his way to the manger the night Jesus was born. The three kings gave their expensive gifts but all the boy had was his guide staff. He offered it to the new born baby anyway and in return received 'The gift of sight'. Fifty under-privileged children had a Christmas that they would not have received otherwise. The next year and following years it was held in the convention hall at "Palmer House" in downtown Chicago for 350 kids. Each child received a Ral Donner T-Shirt and button, a winter jacket, a blanket and four brand new Milton Bradley games and toys. They played games, then would go to the Entertainment Room to eat and watch the show. Lastly all the children would meet Santa Claus, receive their presents and have their picture taken with him. Linda paid for the presents and other expenses as well as wrapping most of the gifts herself. Earl Hensley, Joe Madrid and Dan Pawlak played 'live' at these Christmas parties and one year a very young Ral Donner Jr. sang "Second Miracle" accompanied only by Joe Madrid on piano to a teary-eyed crowd. The band and everyone else involved donated their time for a very worthwhile cause. Unfortunately, due to the large expenses and lack of donations, the "Second Miracle" children's parties stopped after six years. Chicago Mayors Harold Washington and Richard Daley both declared a "Second Miracle Day" - the first being on December 4th 1986 and the other on December 7th 1989.
I wish to thank Ral's son Ral Jr. for providing a goldmine of information used in the preparation of this biography and for his help in ensuring it's accuracy.
My 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). I had the privilege to meet Ral three times during the seventies. I found him to be humble and sincere - a really nice guy. Ral's music lives on and I shall always remember with fondness the "chats" we had in Chicago. Most of Ral's songs were superior to those that Elvis was churning out during the early sixties. Colonel Parker must have wondered where all these great songs were coming from. Elvis must have been scratching his head wondering when he had recorded them! Ral's recordings were consistently in the Billboard and Cashbox charts throughout 1961 and 1962 during which time he sold over 2.5 million records.
** Jim Lounsbury passed away on January 8, 2006
Wilson, November 2000
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