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Why Ronnie Self never made it as a performer is one of the great mysteries and injustices of pop music history. He had the look and the sound — a mix of country, rockabilly, and R&B that sometimes made him sound like a white Little Richard, but mostly like the young Elvis or Carl Perkins — and he wasn't lacking for good songs, which he mostly wrote himself. He should have been there, thought of in the same breath as Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis; instead, he's a footnote in rock & roll history outside of Europe, where he's treated as a legend.
Self was born in Tin Town, MO, on July 5, 1938, the first of five children of Raymond Self, a farmer-turned-railroad worker, and the former Hazel Sprague. Self had a reputation as a wild boy, with incidents of vandalism and assault in his background. He became interested in music while still a boy, and began writing songs while in his teens. He was always submitting demos, and in 1956, Self got hooked up with Dub Albritton, who managed Red Foley, among other artists, and owned a publishing house, and Self was signed to a songwriting contract. His first recording sessions were held in Nashville on behalf of ABC Records, which led to a contract and the release of a single, "Pretty Bad Blues"/"Three Hearts Later," both sides of which were written by Self. Issued in 1956, the record failed to chart — although ABC listed a second single release by Self, "Sweet Love"/"Alone," that disc has never been found, nor have the tapes for those two songs.
In January of 1957, Self was picked by Albritton to perform as part of the Phillip Morris Caravan. Most of the acts on the package show were country players, and Self was the resident rockabilly representative — he quickly began attracting attention with his wild and highly animated stage act, not to mention the nature of his songs, which combined the intensity of R&B with high-energy rockabilly. His success on the tour helped get him a contract with Columbia Records in February of 1957.
Self was back in the studio that month with a session band that included Grady Martin and Hank Garland on guitars with the singer, Floyd Chance, on bass, Buddy Harman on drums, and Floyd Cramer at the ivories. The resulting single, "Big Fool"/"Flame of Love," failed to chart, and a third song, Self's own "Black Night Blues," was unissued until 1990. Four months later, he had another try with four numbers cut in June of that year, which fared no better than their predecessors. Then, in December, he went in for one more session that yielded a piece of rapid-fire, high-powered rock & roll called "Bop a Lena." The raw power of Self's singing, coupled with the frantic beat, has resulted in "Bop a Lena" being labeled as the first punk single in some quarters. That might be a bit extreme, but not too far off the mark — that record moves, and it's just anarchic enough to be recognizable not only to modern rockabilly practitioners like the A-Bones, but lots of punkers as well.
Self's career kept rolling, and in 1958 he even got picked for a screen test for the movie Rally Round the Flag, Boys. Meanwhile, "Bop a Lena," issued in the spring of 1958, began climbing the charts and eventually made it to number 68 — not too high, but at least a beginning, or so it seemed. The single's success was, of course, welcomed, but it could not have come at a worse time. Self had married immediately after the "Bop a Lena" session, and by the time the single started to break around the country, the birth of Self's first child was an imminent prospect. He pulled out of the Phillip Morris tour and never made the screen test because of the birth of his son.
Self's dropping out of the package tour was understandable. Coupled with his established reputation as something of a wild man and being somewhat unreliable, however, it led to his being all but barred from any major engagements, just as "Bop a Lena" was getting airplay and starting to generate sales. No live television variety show (and almost all of them were live then) was willing to book him for fear that he wouldn't turn up, "Bop a Lena" stalled low on the charts and disappeared soon after. By the end of 1958, Self was dropped by Columbia Records.
It was a year of between his final Columbia session in March of 1958 and his next one, for Decca as part of a three-year contract, in the summer of 1959. He never charted a song as a recording artist during his time with Decca, but he did see some success as a songwriter when Brenda Lee covered "I'm Sorry." He had other songs covered by Lee, and also by Jerry Lee, among other artists, and it was his songwriting that gave Self what little solvency he had in those years. By the early '60s, the bottom had fallen out of his reputation, however, as his chronic alcoholism began taking its toll. Pressured by the twin responsibilities of taking care of a family and maintaining a career, he chose the career, but he couldn't keep that going properly either. He left Decca in 1962 without a hit or many prospects and was signed to the Kapp label, where he cut a pair of songs, "Houdini" and "Bless My Broken Heart."
An attempt to get Self onto the Amy-Mala-Bell labels fell apart in the mid-'60s. He continued writing songs and living out a chaotic personal life, which was characterized by increasingly bizarre and self-destructive episodes, some played out in public and many a product of his triple-threat addictions to alcohol, marijuana, and various pills.
Self had some good moments and good times as a performer later in his career — he was especially highly regarded in Europe, practically like visiting royalty. The violent moments began to outnumber the others, however, and he deteriorated physically and mentally later on in life. By the early '80s, his condition had deteriorated more severely so that he couldn't work any longer. On August 28, 1981, he died in Springfield, MO.
Self left behind some 30 songs, and what is amazing is their sheer quality. As a singer and recording artist, he was a triple threat, equally strong as a singer of country ballads, hot white (and white-hot) R&B, and some of the fastest, most bracing rockabilly heard this side of the Sparkletones. It's been said too many times about too many performers, but as a singer, Self could have been another Elvis Presley, and had the potential to be bigger — he lacked Elvis' dark, brooding, charismatic sexuality (although he had a dark side, to be sure), which translated well onscreen, but he could take a song and turn it into the hottest piece of Dixie-fried rock & roll this side of Perkins, and with a frantic Jerry Lee edge to it as well. He may have been a little too country-fried for the rock & roll market after 1956 (a problem that Perkins also ran into), but his songwriting had enough variety to keep his stuff fascinating, and the quality of his music was extraordinary.