At 86, Ronnie Dove still has it all: his hair, his teeth, that crisp tenor and the memories of a musical career rife with pop hits of yore. Eleven times in the mid-1960s, his songs crashed Billboard’s Top 40, a stretch when he appeared on American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show and at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee
Nowadays Dove, a great-grandfather who lives in Pasadena, still draws crowds at local venues. Last week, he performed at the Rosedale American Legion; on Oct. 15, he’ll play the one in Aberdeen. Several times, he has sung the national anthem before Orioles’ games at Camden Yards.
In his prime, Dove’s crooning — his ballads could melt a lady’s heart — prompted female fans to strew the stage with everything from hotel keys to their underwear.
Say you, over there, my name is Ronnie,
I think you are gonna be my girl.
Do those followers — many now seniors — still swoon when he takes the mic?
“I can’t say because my wife, Marty, will read this,” Dove said. “I just know that I love to sing; every time [on stage] is like a dream come true. People tell me, ‘You sing better than ever.’ Well, that’s a lie. But I’d like to perform until I’m 100. I can dream, can’t I?”
His basement is a tribute to Dove’s career, filled with LPs and CDs and autographed photos of his admirers, from Brooks Robinson to Sammy Davis, Jr. There’s a football signed by Johnny Unitas and a boxing glove autographed by Leon Spinks, onetime world heavyweight champ.
Born in Herndon, Virginia, Dove learned to sing from his grandmother, who played the guitar in church. His first solo, at age 5? “Away In A Manger.”
“I remember everyone applauding,” he said.
In 1954, he joined the Coast Guard out of high school. Stationed in Baltimore, he sang in waterfront dives, like Elmer’s Musical Bar, a motorcycle hangout on Pratt Street where bad acts had to dodge flying beer bottles.
“Hells Angels came in every night to hear me do Elvis Presley’s songs,” Dove said. “They liked them, so nobody bothered me.”
His first hit, “Say You,” peaked at No. 40 on Billboard in 1964. Soon after, he landed in Nashville to record the follow-up, “Right Or Wrong,” another slow-tempo tune. There, at the RCA studio, he met Presley.
“I just about fainted; he was my hero,” said Dove. “Elvis gave me a big hug, listened to my playback of ‘Right Or Wrong’ and gave advice.
“’Ronnie,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to end that song on a high note, like you did on ‘Say You,’ because that’s your trademark.’ So I went back into the studio and did one more take, where I hit the high note.”
“Right Or Wrong” reached No. 14 on the charts. On a roll, Dove cranked out four more hits in 1965 and five a year later, including the bouncy “Happy Summer Days.”
Look around you, there’s a rainbow in that watermelon sky,
And the twinkling of a million fireflies,
Let your heart keep taking pictures that we’ll share as years go by,
These are happy, happy, happy summer days.
In February 1965, Dove played The Lyric in Baltimore, alongside Chuck Berry, Little Anthony and The Imperials, and Joe Tex. That summer, he joined Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, a cross-country tour of high profile pop acts including the Shirelles, Peter & Gordon, Brian Hyland and Tom Jones, the swivel-hipped Welshman. Oh, the stories Dove can tell.
“Every night we’d each sing four or five songs in a different town,” he said. “Once, in South Carolina, Tom and I had sore throats and were in my room, trying to phone a doctor. A maid making the beds heard us and said, ‘If you eat a raw potato, it will help.’ We did. It worked. We wanted to thank the maid, but we never saw her again.”
Hobnobbing with rock stars introduced Dove to celebrities in other fields. In Los Angeles to cut one record, he wound up playing a pickup game of baseball in which he caught Dodgers’ Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax.
“He threw it pretty good,” the singer said.
All told, Dove recorded 227 songs. In hindsight, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’d do it all, twice,” he said. “Every second I’m on stage, I feel obligated to the people who still come to hear me sing. It’s the best thrill in the world to have them applaud you.”