Born Ralph Stuart Emanuel Donner, 10 February, 1943, Chicago, Illinois
Ral Donner was one of the best Elvis imitators. That is to say, an imitator of the tamed-down, post-Army Elvis. The raw energy of the early Presley is largely absent from Donner's discs, though he did record his share of rock and roll. Ral always swore that he'd never intentionally set out to copy Presley, though inevitably he was inspired and influenced by Elvis, like just about every other singer of his generation. The people he worked with fully exploited the uncanny vocal similarity.
Born in Chicago, Ral Donner was the youngest of four children. Both his parents were music lovers and encouraged young Ralph from the start. In 1956, Ral was blown away by the new rock n roll sounds and especially by Elvis Presley. With four schoolmates he formed a group called The Rockin' Five. They played high school dances and cut a demo of "Miss Ann" (the Little Richard song) in January 1958 (can be heard on YouTube). Ral tried to audition for Sun Records, but to no avail. However, that trip to Memphis led to a meeting with songwriters Gerald Nelson and Fred Burch (who had written the Thomas Wayne hit "Tragedy"), who agreed to produce him. They came up with two songs, "That's Alright With Me" and "Tell Me Why", which Ral recorded at the Pepper Recording Studio in Memphis, with professional session musicians. The tracks were leased to Scottie Records in Atlanta and released in October 1959. "That's Alright With Me" was covered by Ray Smith (B-side of "Rockin' Little Angel"). By that time Donner was working with a reformed group, as Ral Donner and the Gents. They appeared on Alan Freed's "Big Beat" TV show in 1959.
In the spring of 1960, Ral cut eight demos in Chicago, four of them Presley tunes. Prewitt Rose, a 19-year old producer from Florida, flipped over Ral's demo of "The Girl Of My Best Friend". This song, from the "Elvis Is Back" album, had been released as a Presley single in several countries, but not in the USA. Rose produced Donner's re-recording of the song in October 1960, along with three other tracks. Co-producer Jan Hutchins managed to place the record with George Goldner's Gone label in New York City and the result was a # 19 hit in the spring of 1961. Label credit on "The Girl Of My Best Friend" went to "Ral Donner and the Starfires". Throughout the year 1961, Donner recorded prolifically for Gone, both in New York City and Miami (Criteria Studios), some 40 songs altogether, mostly ballads. The second Gone single became Donner's biggest hit : "You Don't Know What You've Got (Until You Lose It)" went all the way to # 4 on the Billboard charts. On the flip, "So Close To Heaven", Donner sounded almost more like Elvis than Presley himself. Following this success, a generous 14-track LP was issued by Goldner, including a fine cover of the Cliff Richard hit "Nine Times Out Of Ten". (Ral also cut "Please Don't Tease", which wasn't released until after his death.) Three other Gone singles would enter the charts in 1961- 1962, including the Top 20 hit "She's Everything (I Wanted You To Be)". But by the spring of 1962, Ral's relationship with Goldner had soured, and he filed a lawsuit against Gone, claiming unpaid royalties. When the dust had settled, Ral and Gone had parted company. He had been with the label for little over a year, during which period he'd sold somewhere between two and-a-half and three million records. He was never able to come even remotely close to repeating this hot streak.
A year with Reprise Records did not bring him back to the charts, although the second Reprise single, "I Got Burned", must qualify as one of his best. This great rocker was a big hit in Chicago and bubbled under the Hot 100 for a couple of weeks. Next came a stint on Fontana, before he was reunited with George Goldner, who had been enjoying a run of hits on his Red Bird label, but couldn't repeat the trick with Donner. Still, "Love Isn't Like That", his only Red Bird single (1966), was one of Ral's stronger mid-60s releases. After Red Bird there followed a decade of one-off deals with several small labels. By the mid-1970s Ral had more or less retired from singing, but when Elvis died in 1977, Ral was moved to write a tribute song, "The Day the Beat Stopped", which he recorded and released on his own label, Thunder. By far the most poignant and moving of the truckload of 'tributes' that proliferated at that time, it would surely have been a big hit had it come out on a bigger label.
In 1979 Ral recorded the double LP "1935-1977 : I've Been Away For Awhile Now" (for the Mid-Eagle label). He relates "The Elvis Presley Story" and sings snippets of 50 Elvis songs. It was cut in Nashville with backing from the Jordanaires, Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana and many other musicians who'd worked with Elvis. As a sort of spin-off, Ral was asked to provide the voice- over narration (in the voice of Elvis) for the docufilm "This Is Elvis" in 1981. The year before, Ral had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was unable to resume his career. He died in April 1984, just 41 years of age. The Gone material has been reissued by several companies, with quite a few previously unreleased tracks. Donner's voice was rich and mature for his age and he always sounded confident and in control. Sure, he sounds like Elvis, but he was more than just an imitator.
(Much) more info on his official website :
Acknowledgements : Roger Dopson, Terry Wilson.
Dik, May 2013
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