Born: July 5, 1938, Tin Town, MO
Died: August 28, 1981, Springfield, MO
Ronnie Self was born the first of five children of Raymond
Self, a farmer-turned-railroad worker, and Hazel Sprague Self. 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. The relationship between Ronnie and
his parents is somewhat clouded. "When I first met him," recalled his wife Dorothy, "he carried
a Bible in his pocket and talked of being able to make enough money to get his folks out of
poverty, but as the years went on he showed an increasing hostility toward them that I never
(AMG) 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. (Bruce Eder)
On December 16, 1957 Self entered the cavernous Bradley's studio in Nashville and, armed
with a composition from the unlikely team of Webb Pierce and Mel Tillis, turned in one of the most
frenetic performances from the early days of rock & roll. Quite what Columbia's debonair expatriate
Englishman, Don Law, thought as he sat behind the console is open to conjecture. Session stalwarts
Marvin Hughes, Ray Edenton and Buddy Harman probably left the session shaking their heads. But when
Bop-A-Lena, was released early the following year, during the height of the short lived vogue for
primitive, energised rockabilly, it broke into the 'Billboard' charts, peaking at number 68.
Unfortunately, it was Ronnie Self's only chart entry as a performer, a statistic that galled him as
the years passed.
Self had a unique and tortuous career in the music business. He eventually gained a fairly
steady income from his songwriting but, with the exception of Bop-A-Lena, he was capable of much
more than the larynx-searing Bop-A-Lena, though, and could move with ease from country to pop
and onto R&B, leaving his imprint on it all. However, a mixture of problems and sheer bad lick
conspired to keep his name no more than a by-word among a few.
Since 1954 KWTO Springfield, MO had been the originating station of the Ozark Jubilee,
ABC's alternative to the Opry. They had recruited Red Foley to head the regular cast and
made the show available for network television. One of the producers, Si Siman, later became
a music publisher and had an on/off involvement with Self. During the early '50's, Red
Foley was managed by Dub Albritten, who had a close involvement with Cedarwood publishing by
virtue of the fact that he also booked Webb Pierce who owned a piece of Cedarwood. Siman,
Albritten and Cedarwood would play a large part in Self's career.
"Ronnie was in and out of the station with demos," recalled Siman, "and showed all
kinds of promise as a prolific writer." The exact train of events that took him to Nashville
to cut his session for ABC is still a little cloudy.
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 of which were written by Self. Issued in 1956, the record
failed to chart.
It is unclear why Albritten, who had strong ties to Decca via Foley, Webb Pierce and another
Jubilee regular, Brenda Lee, would place Self with ABC. Even stranger was the fate of the second
single, "Sweet Love" b/w "Alone". It was assigned an issue number (ABC 9768),
scheduled but apparently not released. The tapes also disappeared. That disc
has never been found, nor have the tapes for those two songs. It was an
inauspicious debut but Self had acquired an important booster in Dub Albritten,
as well as his first significant publishing affiliation.
In early 1957 Albritten was called upon to help assemble a cast for the Phillip Morris
Caravan and act as promotion manager. Wayne Russell's research has dated the origin of the
Caravan to some annual shows that the company sponsored for their employees. They launched
the Caravan in January 1957 with a troupe that included Carl Smith, Red Sovine, Goldie Hill,
Gordon Terry, Mimi Roman and Ronnie Self. Admission was by invitation, probably to those
bearing a sample of Phillip Morris's product. 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. A spurious 'live' album was
issued featuring studio cuts with overdubbed applause.
"He'd start at the far back of the stage," recalled his sister Vicki, "throw his guitar
over his back and run out to the mike, grab the mike stand and go right down on the floor with
it and sing the first song. That was how he'd start. He'd never stop moving on stage ... He'd
turn around with his back to the audience and face the band - but he never stood still.
He'd never talk to the crowd, just went from one song to another but the band never knew what
it was gonna be. He did "Roll Over Beethoven" and he rocked up some stuff that was country,
like Hank Williams, and his own tunes."
Because of the response that Self generated on the Phillip Morris tour, Albritten secured
him a contract with Columbia. He was signed on February 10th to a deal calling for a paltry
two per cent royalty. The first session, held on February 16th, resulted in one single, "Big
Fool"/"Flame of Love", with a session band to include Grady Martin and Hank Gariana on guitars
with the singer, Floyd Chance on bass, Buddy Harman on drums, and Floyd Cramer on piano. This
single failed to chart, and a third song, Self's own "Black Night Blues," was unissued until 1990.
The follow-up, recorded in June of the same year, allowed Self to display a little more
originality. "Ain't I'm A Dog" and "Rocky Road Blues" being his second release for Columbia.
By now, his pronounced rasping hicuppy vocal styling was well to the fore and he was constantly
urging on the backing musicians in rockin' creativeness. These are examples of
rock 'n' roll excitement at their finest. From accounts of his frantic stage act, it was a
small wonder that he stood in front of the microphone long enough to snarl out the lyrics.
"Ain't I'm A Dog" had a proto punk snarl and lyrics to match ("Forget about the danger
and think of the fun..."). It apparently sold well on a regional basis (indeed Dorothy Self
thought it was his best-selling record) and encouraged Columbia to shelve the two remaining
cuts from the June session.
Come December 16th, 1957, Ronnie was back in the studio with John T. Hill, and Ray
Edenton on guitars plus the faithful Buddy Harman on drums along with Ike Inman on bass plus
Marvin Hughes on piano, he laid down the rapid-fire, high-powered rock 'n' roll classic "Bop-A-Lena",
a little ditty composed by country stalwarts Webb Pierce and Mel Tillis. 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. It was a classic of
raucous overstatement that would inspire uncounted garage bands. Two other sides, "I Ain't Going
Nowhere" and the raucous "You're So Right For Me" were also recorded.
"Bop-A-Lena" slowly but surely started to break out big and eventually peaked at position
68 on the billboard charts. There is a photograph of Self with Dick Clark on the American Bandstand
TV show, the use of the word American before Bandstand in the picture dates it after August 5th,
1957 when the show started to broadcast across the nation. He also appeared on the Grand Ol Opry
and, never one to compromise, rocked like crazy.
Ten days after the "Bop-A-Lena" session, Ronnie took a bride. "I met him when he was dating
a friend of mine." recalled Dorothy, "and we went backstage at Wally Fowler's All Night Singin'
show. 'Pretty Bad Blues' had just been released. He looked at me and said, 'I'm gonna marry you.'"
On December 26, 1957 Ronnie and Dorothy were married.
After "Petrified" faltered, Don Law lost no time in jetisoning Self from the
roster. Albritten's credibility at Decca was still high, though, and he
succeeded in placing Self on a three year deal with the label in which he was
also contracted to Decca's publishing affiliate, Champion Music, for five
years. It was during 1960 that Self saw his greatest success as a composer
with Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry", of which Dub Albritten took a 20 per cent
share. Brenda had started on the Ozark Jubilee and was managed by Albritten
after he had disassociated himself from Foley. She earlier recorded another
of Self's compositions, "Sweet Nothin's" on which her pharasing is strongly
suggestive of the writer. Some have said that Self effectively produced the
The Decca contract expired in 1962. They left a novelty song, "Whistlin' Words", in the can.
Ironically it foreshadowed Roger Miller's success with offbeat novelties by a couple of years.
Self's credibility was still sufficiently high for him to secure a one year deal with Kapp Records.
The top side, "Houdini", was a fairly trite piece of material but the flipside, "Bless My
was a beautifully melodic song that featured the then omnipresent twelve string guitar. It was probably
during the Kapp session, held at Sam Phillips' Nashville studio, that Phillips' guitarist and publishing
manager, Keelso Heerston, picked up one of Self's songs for Jerry Lee Lewis's last Sun sessions a few
weeks later. The song, "Love On Broadway", was unissued in 1963 but fared quite well when Shelby
Singleton released it in 1971.
Champion Music placed him on salary in the early '60s because he had a tendency to cash a big
royalty or BMI check and spend all the money in a few hours. After parting company from
Decca and their publishing companies, Self wrote once again for Cedarwood and eventually
reunited with Si Siman. The craziness continued unabated, especially after Dub Albritten
died in 1971. Albritten had retained his faith in Self and had assumed the role of a father figure.
Around the mid 60s, Self recorded a five track demo session for Cedarwood, according to his
sister Vicki. It was through Si that he got a recording deal with AMY Records who released
Self's "High On Life" and "The Road Keeps Winding" in 1968 with Dale Hawkins producing.
The first of these two titles was also recorded by Gene Vincent on his "The Day The World
Turned Blue" album issued by Karma Suttra Records in 1971. There was to be one more record
release by Ronnie Self during his lifetime and this was "Long Distance Kiss" and "Ain't I
Dandy" on the obscure Scratch label circa 1969.
Ronnie wrote a sacred song "Ain't That Beautiful Singing" performed by Jake Hess which
received a Grammy for Best Sacred Performance in 1969.
With the death of Dub Albritten, Self decided to move back to Springfield, where he formed
Tablerock Music with Si Simon on a 50/50 basis. Siman provided the funds and Self the music.
One song published by the company was "Home In My Hand" and was recorded as a great rockin'
opus by Dallas Frazier. However after two years Self abruptly terminated the partnership.
He was becoming more and more unpredictable and was becoming meshed in a vicious cycle of booze and pills.
There is a story that one night he blew up a shelf of his demo recordings with a shotgun.
Dorothy left for the last time in 1978 and remarried another man. Ronnie called her again
shortly before he died trying for a reconciliation. "I'd tried and I'd have given anything
to see it work," she said. "It was unbearable to see someone so talented destroy themself."
Self had also burned his bridges with Si Siman, "He came back to see me after a few more
bumps in the road and wanted to start over but I couldn't afford to re-tie that knot. I
think he was probably clinically insane then, doing real unusual things. It wasn't safe
to be around him although I still thought he was a terrific writer. When he was straight,
he was great to do business with. He was a gentleman. But when he got some juice inside
him he'd shoot holes in the wall, fire off a bow and arrow, chase people and try to run 'em
down with a car. He was in and out of jail God knows how many times. His talent was a curse.
When success was real close, he'd have only had to do what people were telling him, but he
couldn't handle that - and he blew it.
"He was a perfectionist. He wanted to do it all. He was like the guy who hires an artist
then tells him how to paint the picture. I wanted to be his friend but he wouldn't let me.
Nobody could get real close to him."
Self moved into an apartment building in Springfield. His brother ahd a room in the same building.
It was there that he died on August 28th, 1981. A year before Self died, Dave Edmunds received one
of his songs, "Home In My Hand". Five months after he died, Diana Ross scored a huge pop and R&B
hit with "Mirror, Mirror"; on the flip side, generating mechanical if not airplay royalties,
was "Sweet Nothin's". It highlighted the timeless and cross-cultural appeal of Self's work.
He could write or perform in a variety of styles and sound convincing in all of them. On an
unissued Decca recording, "Some Other World", he wrote his own epitaph:
One of the last recordings, if not the last, that Ronnie made was "Waitin For My Gin To Hit Me"
in June of 1981.
Down with your theories/Down with your conventions
This cat lives in another dimension
You like my sounds/You like my song
I guess I'm right and you cats are wrong.
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. Ronnie
Self left behind some four hundred songs, and what is amazing is their sheer quality.
As a singer/songwriter/performer, 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 on screen, but he could take a song
and turn it into the hottest piece of dixie-fried rock and roll this side of Carl Perkins,
and with a frantic Jerry Lee Lewis edge to it as well. He may have been a little too
country-fried for the rock & roll market after 1956 (a problem that Carl Perkins also
ran into), but his songwriting had enough variety to keep his stuff fascination, and
the quality of his music was extraordinary.
Ronnie Self, you will always be remembered as a great songwriter and dynamic rocker.
Rest In Peace, and Thank You for your great music.
Credits and Special Thanks:
All Music Guide, Bruce Eder
Tony Wilkinson, Feb. 2001
Colin Escott liner notes to "Bop-A-Lena" CD (Bear Family Records)
Lloyd Hicks/Billy Miller article (Kicks magazine)
Ronnie Self article by Wayne Russell
Colin Escott, Toronto, January 1990
Si Siman and Dorothy Carlton interviewed by Colin Escott.
Vicky and Sammy Self interviewed by Lloyd Hicks (Kicks'#4)
'Ronnie Self & the Phillip Morris Show' by Wayne Russell
(New Kommotion #18)
'That Old Time Rock & Roll' by Mark Marymont
('Springfield News Leader' - Oct. 11/87)
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Ronna Self Smith, Billy Miller and Wayne Russell.
Roman Self's CD Available NOW!
"Roman Self: A Tribute to Ronnie Self"
TRACK LISTING: Ain't I Dandy, Bop A Lena, Long Distance Kiss,
Big Fool, Rocky Road Blues, Bless My Broken Heart, Ain't I'm A Dog,
Pretty Bad Blues, Big Town, Flame of Love, Big Blon Baby, Sweet Nothins,
You the Mama of My Song.
Recorded at Burns Station Sound, Burns, TN.
Released on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame label / RABHOF CD114.
For Order Information,
© Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®