One of the most underrated synth pioneers in soul/pop music is Ronnie McNeir. McNeir conceived a highly individualistic approach to music synthesis over the course of three albums and one EP. Hyperkentic (broken chord) jazzy synth-bass lines, churchy organ, multi-note piano chords, and sinewy high and mid-range ARP solo lines weave in and out of the mix while McNeir supplied all the vocals and acoustic drums. McNeir's tools for this aural wizardry were acoustic piano, melodica, the ARP 2000 and ARP Rhapsody synthesizers, and an organ rhythm box he dubbed "Mister Ed." Besides soul music fans and steppers, many albums in McNeir's catalog are favorites among Northern soul and beach music enthusiasts.
The Camden, AL, native moved to Detroit, MI, at an early age. He taught himself piano by listening to the records of the day, including the sounds of Motown and jazz artists. As a teen, he won a talent contest and was rewarded with a single release, "Sitting in My Class," on the Deto label. In 1972, he made a trip out to California, where while playing in church he met Motown alumni Kim Weston and Mickey Stevenson. Using her private recording studio, he recorded his first album, Ronnie McNeir, for RCA that same year that included the singles "Summertime" (not the Porgy and Bess standard) and "Young Girl." "Summertime" was basis for the McNeir favorite "I'm Your Lover." The Ronnie McNeir LP was reissued around 1978 and became a perennial favorite in the U.K.
Returning to Michigan, he began playing in churches and doing studio work, primarily at United Sound Studio in Detroit. To make ends meet, he also took a sales position with Mattel. In 1976, McNeir recorded a nice mid-tempo groover, "Wendy Is Gone," for Barney Ales' Prodigal label. Prodigal was Motown's "minor league" label; meaning that if a Prodigal release did real well, the act was then transferred to Motown. "Wendy Is Gone" took off in Detroit and other key markets and landed on the lower half of Billboard's soul singles chart. The album Ronnie McNeir (the same title as his RCA debut) was released by Prodigal. The Billboard charting singles, "Saggitarian Affair" and "I'm Your Lover," proved popular enough for McNeir to have a guest spot on Soul Train. "Wendy Is Gone," "I'm Your Lover," and "Nothing but a Heartache" became steppers favorites. Motown signed McNeir that same year.
His Motown debut, Love's Comin' Down, was released in August 1976. He was assigned Motown veteran Clarence Paul to co-produce the album with and a pre-Raydio Ray Parker Jr. supplied sporadic guitar. McNeir got to work with Smokey Robinson on the movie soundtrack for Big Time (the title track is a great showcase for McNeir's astounding skills) and the Love Breeze album. Despite favorable reviews in Billboard U.K.'s Black Music and other publications, numerous singles releases ("Selling My Heart to the Junkman," "It Wont Be Long (Before We're All Gone," "Have You Ever Seen Them Shake," and "Love's Comin' Down"), the album didn't chart. There were tracks recorded for a second Motown album, but they were never released. Around this time, McNeir recorded two tracks with the Four Tops for their 1977 ABC album, The Show Must Go On. He later became the group's musical director and he appears on their 1995 Motown album, Christmas Here With You. Also during the late '70s, McNeir began working for Detroit-based producer Don Davis' (Johnnie Taylor, the Dramatics) Groovesville Productions, appearing on sides by David Ruffin and Dramatics vocalist L.J. Reynolds' solo Capitol LP, among others. McNeir also recorded as a solo artist with Groovesville, releasing a duet single with Rena Scott, "A Different Kind of Love," on Davis' RCA-distributed label, Tortoise International. In 1984, a four-song EP produced by Horizon Productions was released by Capitol. The Ronnie McNeir Experience featured a Rene Moore and Angela Winbush-penned song, "Come on Be With Me," as its sole charting single.
In 1985, McNeir made it to the upper half of Billboard's R&B charts as the producer/composer of "I Couldn't Believe It" (remixed by Nick Martinelli), a hit for former Temptations members David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, who recorded as Ruffin & Kendricks for RCA. The prolific songwriter, session musician, vocalist, and producer appeared on albums by Little Milton (Age Aint Nothing but a Number), Rance Allen (Stax/Fantasy), Carrie Lucas' cover of Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger" from Horsing Around (Solar/RCA), and Bobby Womack's "Caught Up in the Middle" from his Pieces album, among others.
The popularity of his albums, particularly his RCA debut, the Prodigal release, led to concert and recording dates in the U.K. for McNeir during the '80s and '90s. ~ Ed Hogan