By Brad Dison
In the late 1960s, Lee was a young piano player in a band which performed on military bases. Lee and the other band members enjoyed playing for the troops, and they got varying responses. Sometimes the crowds were well-behaved, but on other occasions it was “high times and flying furniture.” Lee and the other members of the band preferred something in between. While onstage, the band enjoyed themselves. Offstage, however, they were bored. There was little for the band to do offstage to entertain themselves. The monotony of the military bases drove the band to long bouts of boredom. Lee remembered that all of the buildings and people in uniform looked alike.
After their late show one night at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which ended around 2 a.m., the band sat around their van talking. Their conversation varied from topic to topic and, somehow, they got on the subject of learning to drive. Lee explained that he had never driven an automobile. There they found an escape from the monotony.
Lee was from a poor, broken home. His parents had split up while Lee was an infant, and, shortly after his father left, his mother abandoned him. He lived a short time with his impoverished grandparents who were unable to take proper care of the young child. They sent him away to a boarding school at the age of five. It was at school that Ronnie Lee discovered his love and talent for music.
The band members poured into the band’s van. The parking lot was deserted by that time, which offered Lee the perfect place to learn to drive without obstructions. Lee sat in the driver’s seat. Guitarist Stan Reece sat behind Lee to give him instructions. The other band members were just along for the ride. Stan explained that he would push on Lee’s left shoulder to turn left, would push on his right to turn right, and would tell him when to speed up or slow down. What could go wrong?
Lee struggled to drive the band’s van. Rather than soft, fluid motions, Lee jerked the wheel left and right. Lee overcorrected each time Stan pushed on one of Lee’s shoulders. Stan told Lee to slow down and he slammed on the brakes. The van came to a screeching halt. The drummer flew from the back seat into the console between the front seats, and decided it would be safer for him to walk.
With one less passenger, Lee decided to leave the safety of the parking lot and drive on the street. Lee had just a single turn from the main street of the base to get to their hotel. No one objected. They drove down Bragg Boulevard in a sort of zig-zag pattern. As they neared the exit gate of the base, the few cars that were in front of them suddenly stopped. Just as before, Lee brought the van to a screeching halt. At the front of the line of cars, a military policeman glanced back at the van then turned back to the car nearest him. MPs had set up a roadblock to check for drunk drivers and were checking everyone’s driver’s license.
Lee, who was driving without a license, had no opportunity to switch places with any of the passengers. Lee had no choice but to face the consequences. He slowly pulled forward. When he reached the front of the line, the MP told him to exit the car, something he had not done with the other drivers. Lee politely and respectfully followed all of the MP’s instructions. The MP asked to see Lee’s driver’s license. Lee replied that he had not planned to drive that night and left his license in his hotel room. The MP became furious and scolded him for driving on the base without his license. Lee calmly explained that he and the band had played a gig for the soldiers on the base and the other members of the band were too intoxicated to drive back to the hotel. The MP’s anger subsided.
Lee knew the MP had seen him weaving while driving and assumed the MP thought he had been drinking. The MP spoke with Lee for a few minutes to make sure he was sober, and finally allowed him to continue on his way. The MP told Lee not to ever let him see him driving that way again. As soon as Lee pulled the van out of sight of the MPs, he pulled over and Johnny Christopher, the bass player, drove the rest of the way to the hotel.
That was Lee’s first and last time driving an automobile. To this day, Lee tells the story of his Fort Bragg driving lesson with a smile on his face. Lee still laughs at how he was too embarrassed to tell the MPs that he was guilty of driving while blind. For the blind man behind the wheel that night at Fort Bragg, who is credited with thirty-five number one country hits, whose middle name is Lee, was six-time Grammy Award winner Ronnie Milsap.
Ronnie, Milsap. Almost Like a Song. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.