Mick Ronson (26 May 1946 – 29 April 1993) was an English guitarist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer. He is most well known for his work with David Bowie from 1970 to 1973, Bowie’s glam rock period, including being part of The Spiders from Mars band.
He also had a solo career, the most notable example of which was his Slaughter On 10th Avenue album, that reached No 9 on the UK album charts. Ronson also guested on various different bands’ releases after his time with Bowie. He was named the 64th greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone.
Michael Ronson was born on Beverley Road, Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire in 1946, then moved to live in Greatfield, Hull. As a child he played piano, recorder, violin, and harmonium. He initially wanted to be a cellist, but moved to guitar when he got hooked on Duane Eddy and The Yardbirds. He joined his first band, The Mariners, in November 1963 at the age of 17. His stage debut with The Mariners was in support of the Keith Herd Band at Elloughton Village Hall, a gig for which the band travelled 35 miles and got paid 10 shillings (50p). While Ronson was working with The Mariners, another local Hull group – The Crestas – recruited him on the advice of The Mariners’ bassist Johnny Griffin. With Ronson on board the Crestas gained a solid reputation, making regular appearances at local halls: Mondays at the Halfway House in Hull, Thursdays at the Ferryboat Hotel, Fridays at the Regal Ballroom in Beverley, and Sundays at the Duke of Cumberland in North Ferriby.
In 1965, Ronson left The Crestas to try his luck in London. He took a part time job as a mechanic, and before long, he teamed up with a band called The Voice, replacing Miller Anderson. Soon afterward, Crestas’ drummer Dave Bradfield made the trip down to London when the Voice’s drummer left. After playing just a few dates with the group, Ronson and Bradfield returned from a weekend in Hull to find their gear piled at their flat and a note explaining that the rest of the group had gone to the Bahamas. Ronson stayed in London and teamed up briefly with a soul band called The Wanted, before eventually returning to Hull.
In 1966, Mick Ronson joined Hull’s top local band, The Rats, joining singer Benny Marshall, bassist Jeff Appleby, and drummer Jim Simpson (who was subsequently replaced by Clive Taylor and then John Cambridge). The group played the local circuit, and also made a few unsuccessful trips to London and Paris.
In 1967 The Rats recorded the one-off psychedelic track, “The Rise And Fall Of Bernie Gripplestone” at Fairview Studios in Hull, and can be heard on the 2008 release Front Room Masters – Fairview Studios 1966-1973 . 1968 saw the band change their name briefly to Treacle and book another recording session at Fairview Studios in 1969, before reverting to their original name. Around this time, Ronson was recommended by Rick Kemp to play guitar on Michael Chapman’s Fully Qualified Survivor LP.
When John Cambridge left The Rats to join his former Hullabaloos bandmate Mick Wayne in Junior’s Eyes, he was replaced by Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. In November 1969, the band recorded a final session at Fairview, taping “Telephone Blues” and “Early In Spring”.
In March 1970, during the recording sessions for Elton John’s album Tumbleweed Connection, Mick Ronson played guitar on the track ‘Madman Across the Water’. This song however was not included in the original release. The recording featuring Ronson only saw the light of day on the 1995 reissue of Tumbleweed Connection.
Early in 1970, John Cambridge came back to Hull in search of Mick Ronson, intent upon recruiting him for a new David Bowie backing band called The Hype. He found Ronson marking out a rugby pitch, one of his duties as a Parks Department gardener for Hull City Council. Having failed in his earlier attempts in London, Ronson was reluctant, but eventually agreed to accompany Cambridge to a meeting with David Bowie. Two days later, on 5 February, Ronson made his debut with Bowie on John Peel’s national BBC Radio 1 Sunday Show.
The Hype played their first gig at The Roundhouse on 22 February with a line-up that included Bowie, Ronson, Cambridge, and producer/bassist Tony Visconti. The group dressed up in superhero costumes, with Bowie as Rainbowman, Visconti as Hypeman, Ronson as Gangsterman, and Cambridge as Cowboyman. This performance was filmed and recorded and is currently in the vaults owned by MainMan. Also on the bill that day were Bachdenkel, Groundhogs and Caravan. The following day they performed at the Streatham Arms in London under the pseudonym of ‘Harry The Butcher’. They also performed on 28 February at the Basildon Arts Lab experimental music club at the Basildon Arts Centre in Essex. Billed as ‘David Bowie’s New Electric Band’ so new they haven’t got a name yet! Also on the bill were High Tide, Overson and Iron Butterfly. Strawbs were due to perform but were replaced by David Bowie’s New Electric Band. John Cambridge departed on 30 March, again replaced by Woody Woodmansey. In April 1970, Ronson, Woodmansey, and Tony Visconti commenced recording Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World album, with Ronson’s Jeff Beck-influenced guitar work to the fore.
During the sessions for The Man Who Sold The World, the trio of Ronson, Visconti, and Woodmansey – still under The Hype moniker – signed to Vertigo Records. The group recruited Benny Marshall from The Rats as vocalist, and entered the studio to record an album. By the time a single appeared, The Hype had been re-christened Ronno. “The Fourth Hour of My Sleep” was released on Vertigo to an indifferent reception in January 1971. The song was written by Tucker Zimmerman, a friend of Visconti’s, and not Bob Dylan as many sources have suggested. The B-side was a Ronson/Marshall composition called “Powers of Darkness”. The Ronno album was never completed.
David Bowie’s backing ensemble, which by now included Trevor Bolder who had replaced Tony Visconti on bass guitar duties and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, were used in the recording of Hunky Dory. The departure of Visconti also meant that Ronson, with Bowie, took over the arrangements, whilst Ken Scott co-produced with Bowie. Very different from the heavy rock of the preceding album, Ronson’s orchestral arrangements showcased a far more melodic batch of Bowie compositions. Hunky Dory was perhaps their most collaborative album, which the sleeve notes acknowledge.
It was this band, minus Rick Wakeman, that became known as The Spiders From Mars from the title of the next Bowie album. Again, Ronson was a key part of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album, providing string arrangements and various instrumentation, as well as handling the lead guitar duties. This album returned to the rock oriented music of the earlier album, with Ronson’s guitar heroics providing the perfect frame for Bowie’s doomed rock star role. Ronson and Bowie achieved some notoriety over the concerts promoting this album, when Bowie would simulate fellatio on Ronson’s guitar as he played.
Ronson co-produced Lou Reed’s album Transformer with Bowie, playing lead guitar on the album and piano on the song “Perfect Day”. Again with Bowie, he recut the track “The Man Who Sold The World” for Lulu, released as a single in the UK, and played on a few tracks on the Dana Gillespie album Weren’t Born a Man.
Ronson appeared on the 1972 country-rock album Bustin’ Out by Pure Prairie League, where he did the string ensemble arrangements and contributed guitar and vocals on several tracks.
His guitar work was next heard on Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and 1973′s covers album Pin Ups. Many people had begun to believe that Ronson’s contribution to Bowie’s output was becoming indispensable, so it was quite a surprise that he was absent from the Diamond Dogs album (although he played on the “1980 Floor Show”, featuring songs which appeared on the record).
After leaving Bowie’s entourage after the “Farewell Concert” in 1973, Ronson released three solo albums. His solo debut Slaughter On 10th Avenue, featured a brave version of Elvis Presley’s song, “Love Me Tender”, as well as Ronson’s most famous solo track – “Only After Dark”. In addition, his sister, Margaret Ronson, provided the backing vocals for the set. Between this and the 1975 follow-up, Ronson had a short-lived stint with Mott the Hoople. He then became a long-time collaborator with former Mott the Hoople leader Ian Hunter, commencing with the album Ian Hunter and featuring the UK singles chart hit “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”, including a spell touring as the Hunter Ronson Band. In 1980, the live album Welcome to the Club was released, including a couple of Ronson showcases, which curiously also had a few new studio tracks – one being a Hunter/Ronson song. In 1990, Ronson again collaborated with Hunter on the album, Yui Orta, this time getting joint credit – the album was detailed as being by “Hunter/Ronson”. In 1993, he again appeared on a David Bowie album; Black Tie White Noise playing on the track “I Feel Free”, originally recorded by Cream. Ronson and Bowie had already covered this track live some 20 years earlier whilst touring as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
His second and third solo albums were Play Don’t Worry in 1975, and Heaven And Hull in 1994. The latter set was only partly completed at the time of Ronson’s demise, and was released posthumously.
Besides Bowie and Hunter, Mick Ronson went on to work as a musician, writer and record producer with many other acts including Slaughter & The Dogs (who took their name from the Ronson album Slaughter on 10th Avenue), Morrissey, The Wildhearts, The Rich Kids (featuring post-Sex Pistols Glen Matlock and post-Slik/pre-Ultravox Midge Ure), Elton John, Johnny Cougar, T-Bone Burnett, Dalbello, Benny Mardones, Iron City Houserockers and the Italian band Moda, which featured Andrea Chimenti on vocals. He did not restrict his influence behind the recording desk to just established acts. His production work appears on albums by more obscure artists, such as The Payolas, Phil Rambow and Los Illegals. Ronson produced the The Visible Targets, a Seattle group, on their 1983 5-track EP “Autistic Savant.” He had a lifetime passion for helping unheralded artists get a chance to shine, and he assisted many local bands along the way.
Ronson was also a member of Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” live band, and can be seen both on and off-stage in the film of the tour. He also made a connection with ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn during this time, which led to him producing and contributing guitar and arrangements to McGuinn’s 1976 solo album Cardiff Rose.
In 1982, he participated on lead guitar in a short lived band with Hilly Michaels on drums and Les Fradkin on Bass Guitar. One of their recordings from this group (“Spare Change”) appears on the 2006 CD: Les Fradkin- “Goin’ Back”.
In 1987, Ronson made an appearance on a record by Geffen band, The Toll. Ronson plays signature riffs on the band’s song, “Stand In Winter”, from the album titled, “The Price of Progression”, produced by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero
In 1992 he produced Morrissey’s Your Arsenal album, helping to redirect Morrissey’s career after the album Kill Uncle.
His last, high profile, live performance was his famed appearance at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992. Poignantly, he played on “All The Young Dudes” with David Bowie and Ian Hunter, and “Heroes” with Bowie.
Ronson’s last ever recorded session was as a guest on the 1993 Wildhearts album Earth Vs The Wildhearts, where he played the guitar solo on the song “My Baby Is A Headfuck”.
Ronson died of liver cancer on 29 April 1993 at the age of 46. In his memory, the Mick Ronson Memorial Stage was constructed in Queens Gardens in his hometown of Hull. There is also a street named after him on Bilton Grange Estate, not far from where he lived.
Throughout his career with Bowie, Ronson used a 1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty”. While working on the Chapman album he noticed the singer’s natural finish acoustic, which had been paint-stripped to improve treble response. Ronson directed a roadie to do the same for his Les Paul.
Personal note for the author Nigel Turner-Heffer.
Mick Ronson influenced me as a guitarist so much that I had my Gibson Les Paul Custom customised to look like his.
My Gibson Les Paul Custom it’s a 1970 model.