Michael "Mick" Ronson (26 May 1946 – 29 April 1993) was an English guitarist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer. He is best known for his work with David Bowie, as one of the Spiders from Mars. Ronson was a busy session musician who recorded with artists as diverse as Bowie and Morrissey, as well as appearing as a sideman in touring bands with performers such as Van Morrison.
He also recorded several solo albums, the most notable example of which was Slaughter on 10th Avenue, which reached No. 9 on the UK Albums Chart. Ronson played with various bands after his time with Bowie. He was named the 64th greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone in 2003 and 41st in 2012 by the same magazine.
Michael Ronson was born in Beverley Road, Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, in 1946, then moved to Greatfield, Hull. As a child he was trained classically to play piano, recorder, violin, and (later) the harmonium. He initially wanted to be a cellist, but moved to guitar upon discovering the music of Duane Eddy, whose sound on the bass notes of his guitar sounded to Ronson similar to that of the cello. He joined his first band, The Mariners, in November 1963, when he was 17. His stage debut with The Mariners was in support of the Keith Herd Band at Brough 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 John Griffiths. 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, Ronson joined Hull's top local band, The Rats, joining singer Benny Marshall, bassist Geoff Appleby, and drummer Jim Simpson (who was subsequently replaced by Clive Taylor and then John Cambridge). The group played the local circuit, and 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 Willerby, 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 album.
In 1968 Keith 'Ched' Cheesman joined The Rats replacing Geoff Appleby on bass and the line up of Ronson, Marshall, Cheesman and Cambridge entered Fairview studio to record "Guitar Boogie", "Stop and Get A Hold of Myself" and "Morning Dew".
When John Cambridge left The Rats to join his former Hullaballoos 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, Ronson played guitar on the track "Madman Across the Water". This song however was not included in the original release. The recording featuring Ronson was released on the 1992 compilation album, Rare Masters, and the 1995 reissue of Tumbleweed Connection.
Early in 1970, Cambridge came back to Hull in search of 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 Bowie. Two days later, on 5 February, Ronson made his debut with Bowie on John Peel's national BBC Radio 1 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. Also on the bill that day were Bachdenkel, The 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'. Also on the bill were High Tide, Overson and Iron Butterfly. Strawbs were due to perform but were replaced by Bowie's New Electric Band. John Cambridge departed on 30 March, again replaced by Woody Woodmansey. In April 1970, Ronson, Woodmansey, and Visconti commenced recording Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World album.
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 renamed Ronno. "4th Hour of My Sleep" was released on Vertigo to an indifferent reception in January 1971. The song was written by Tucker Zimmerman. The B-side was a Ronson/Marshall composition called "Powers of Darkness". The Ronno album was never completed.
Bowie's backing ensemble, which now included Trevor Bolder who had replaced Visconti on bass guitar 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. Hunky Dory was perhaps their most collaborative album, which the sleeve notes acknowledged.
It was this band, minus 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, providing string arrangements and various instrumentation, as well as playing lead guitar. 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's guitar and arranging during the Spiders from Mars era provided much of the underpinning for later punk rock musicians. In 1972 Ronson provided a strings-and-brass arrangement for the song "Sea Diver" on the Bowie-produced All the Young Dudes album for Mott the Hoople, and co-produced Lou Reed's album Transformer with Bowie, playing lead guitar and piano on the song "Perfect Day". Again with Bowie, he re-recorded and produced 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 undertook string ensemble arrangements and contributed guitar and vocals on several tracks most notably "Angel #9" which reappeared on his solo LP "Play Don't Worry."
His guitar work was next heard on Bowie's Aladdin Sane and 1973 covers album Pin Ups. However, he was absent from the subsequent Diamond Dogs album. In September 1983 he was a special guest at the Toronto leg of the Serious Moonlight Tour, playing lead guitar during the performance of "The Jean Genie". He had only been asked to play the day before, and later recalled:
Bowie said in a 1994 interview that "Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character. He was very much a salt-of-the-earth type, the blunt northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so that what you got was the old-fashioned Yin and Yang thing. As a rock duo, I thought we were every bit as good as Mick and Keith or Axl and Slash. Ziggy and Mick were the personification of that rock n roll dualism."
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 version of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender", as well as Ronson's most famous solo track, "Only After Dark". In addition, his sister, Margaret (Maggi) 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 Mott's former leader Ian Hunter, commencing with the album Ian Hunter (UK No. 21) and featuring the UK Singles Chart No. 14 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 contributions, although it also contained a few studio-based tracks – one of which was a Hunter/Ronson composition.
In 1974, Ronson secured the No. 2 spot from a reader's poll in Creem magazine as the best guitarist that year (with Jimmy Page taking first place), and Eric Clapton in third place after Ronson.
Ronson contributed guitar to the title track of the 1976 David Cassidy release Getting It in the Street.
Roger Daltrey employed Ronson's guitar on his 1977 solo release One of the Boys.
In 1979 Ronson and Hunter produced and played on the Ellen Foley debut album, Night Out, with "We Belong to the Night" and the hit single "What's a Matter Baby."
In 1982, Ronson worked with John Mellencamp on his American Fool album, and in particular the song "Jack & Diane":
Both "Jack & Diane" and American Fool topped their respective US Billboard charts.
In 1990, Ronson again collaborated with Hunter on the album YUI Orta, this time getting joint credit, as "Hunter/Ronson". In 1993, he again appeared on a 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 twenty 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 death, and was released posthumously. Artists involved with the album included John Mellencamp, Joe Elliott, Ian Hunter, David Bowie, Chrissie Hynde, and Martin Chambers.
Besides Bowie and Hunter, Ronson went on to work as a musician, songwriter 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, Elton John, One The Juggler, John Mellencamp, T-Bone Burnett, Dalbello, Benny Mardones, Iron City Houserockers and the Italian band Moda. 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 Payolas, Phil Rambow and Los Illegals and The Mundanes. Ronson produced The Visible Targets, a Seattle based group, on their 1983 five track EP, "Autistic Savant".
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 Roger McGuinn during this time, which led to his 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", appeared on the Fradkin's 2006 album, Goin' Back.
In 1987, Ronson made an appearance on a record by The Toll. Ronson played lead on the band's song, "Stand in Winter", from the album The Price of Progression.
In 1991, Mick Ronson produced the Swedish cult band The Leather Nun's album, Nun Permanent, adding backing vocals and guitar overdub's on several tracks. At the end of the production, during a short visit to his sister in London, Ronson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
In 1992 he produced Morrissey's album, Your Arsenal. The same year, Ronson's final high profile live performance was his appearance at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. He played on "All the Young Dudes" with Bowie and Hunter; and "Heroes" with Bowie. Ronson's final 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, survived by his wife Suzy, and his children Nicholas, Lisa (with wife, Suzi Ronson), and Joakim (with Carola Westerlund). Ronson was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His funeral was held in a Mormon chapel in London on 6 May.
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" (the finish of which had been removed from the top). This Gibson Les Paul was also used during his post-Bowie solo career, during his tenure with Mott The Hoople, the first few Ian Hunter records. At some point in the early 1980s the 1968 Les Paul was retired and eventually donated to a Hard Rock Cafe in Australia, and is currently in the possession of a guitar shop owner. It was around this time that Ronson used a 1972 Gibson SG Type 2 with an ebony fingerboard which had small pearl block inlays (this is also now currently owned by a guitar shop owner in Crewe), but also began to favour a blue with rosewood fretboard Fender Telecaster. He used this guitar through the 1980s up until his death, and he can be seen playing it at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, which was his last public performance. He did not, however, limit himself to these two models of guitars. Ronson also used Marshall 200 amplifiers (not to be confused with a Marshall Major) that he nicknamed "The Pig", and also owned one of the first Mesa-Boogie amplifiers. Ronson also used a Crybaby Wah Pedal and a Sola Sound Tone Bender MKI for his signature sound during the 'Spiders from Mars' era.
- Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1974 – UK No. 9)
- Play Don't Worry (1975 – UK No. 29)
- Heaven and Hull (1994)
- Just Like This (recorded in 1976, released in 1999)
- Showtime (live in 1976 and 1989, released in 1999)
- Indian Summer (recorded in 1981-2, released in 2001)
- "Billy Porter" / "Seven Days" (1974) – RCA 2482
- "Love Me Tender" / "Only After Dark" (1974) – RCA APBO-0212
- "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" / "Leave My Heart Alone" (1974) – RCA APBO-0291
- "Billy Porter" / "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" (1982) – RCA GOLD 546
- "Don't Look Down" / "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" / "Billy Porter" / "Love Me Tender" CD single (1994 – UK No. 55) – credited to Mick Ronson with Joe Elliott
With David Bowie
- The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
- Hunky Dory (1971)
- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
- Aladdin Sane (1973)
- Pin Ups (1973)
- Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (1983)
- Black Tie White Noise (1993)
- Bowie at the Beeb (2000)
- Live Santa Monica '72 (2008)
With Ian Hunter
- Ian Hunter (1975)
- You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979)
- Welcome to the Club (1980)
- Short Back 'n' Sides (1981)
- YUI Orta (1990)
- BBC Live in Concert (1995)
With Bob Dylan
- Hard Rain (1976)
- The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue (2002)
- Weird; Gilly, Mick Ronson: the spider with the platinum hair, London Independent Music/Imp Publishing (27 January 2003). ISBN 978-0-9539942-3-6
- The Secret Sessions featuring Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson
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