Sad songs and Chuck Berry, Ronny Elliott has been around

Ronny Elliott says whatever he has in mind when he starts recording an album, it doesn't turn out that way: "They sort of become whatever they become and it's beyond anything I can do about it."

Ronny Elliott says whatever he has in mind when he starts recording an album, it doesn't turn out that way: "They sort of become whatever they become and it's beyond anything I can do about it."

Ronny Elliott has an unusual way of remembering our last interview.

"I measure time in wives and that's two back," says Elliott with a laugh.

When it's suggested that divorce tends to give songwriters good songs, he's not so sure. "Well, it certainly gives you songs. I don't know about good songs. But I can do without songs — I got songs! I'd like happy songs!"

In a call from his home in Tampa, Fla., Elliott says it has taken some time to acknowledge the kind of songs he writes.

"I was in Germany and this guy with a black turtleneck and sunglasses on at night asked me, 'Why do you write such dark, sad songs?' I was kind of taken aback. I never thought about writing dark, sad songs."

Elliott says he initially thought the person who asked the question had just misunderstood some of the lyrics being that English was not his first language.

"But then people kept asking me and I realized, 'Yeah, I write sad, dark songs.'"

Elliott has released a string of acclaimed but little-heard albums, including the new "I've Been Meaning to Write," that are filled with songs that are, mostly ... well, a little sad.

Elliott began writing songs in the early 1960s when he was playing bass with a group called the Raveons — the first of many groups, including Noah's Ark and the Soul Trippers.

Despite getting recording contracts and releasing records with several of the groups, one of his more memorable experiences was backing up rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry.

It began with a short tour in the late 1960s when Elliott and some fellow Tampa musicians were tapped to back up Berry, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley and the Coasters on an oldies show.

After that tour was over, Berry had promoters contact Elliott to put together a band whenever he was in the area.

"Sometimes it was good and sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes it was fun and sometimes it wasn't!" says Elliott. "He's really capable of being a really nice guy, but he doesn't always choose to be. But he's still one of my all-time heroes."

He says the music was not a challenge, but sometimes dealing with being on a show with Berry could be.

Elliott said Berry laid down the law for the band on the first night after showing up five hours after the set rehearsal time and just a few minutes before the show.

"He said, 'I'm Chuck Berry. I'll tell you what song we're playing. I'll tell you what key we're in. Don't anybody play too loud, because it's my show and I'll stop the show and embarrass you. And if I do this,' and he moved his guitar down, 'that means stop!'"

When the show began, Berry began 'Nadine' in a different key than the recording and at one point moved his guitar down. "We all stopped dead, because of what he'd said, and I don't think I've ever gotten a meaner look in all my life!"

Elliott got out of music for several years before returning to record "Ronny Elliott and the Nationals" in 1995.

He says there hasn't been a lot of change in his songs though the years.

"Sometimes people ask me 'Which of your records should I get?' I'm like, 'Look, if you like this one you'll like 'em all and if you don't like this one you're not gonna like any of them! Save your money!'"

Tennessee Shines

With: Ronny Elliott, Dave Eggar & Amber Rubarth, Susan Underwood

When: 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5

Where: Knoxville Visitor's Center, 301 S. Gay St.

Tickets: $10, available at www.wdvx.com

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