He was a warehouseman, car mechanic and municipal gardener – but boy could he play guitar [and piano, recorder, violin, bass and drums]. Mick Ronson became the undisputed king of glam rock guitarists, ace arranger and prolific producer on countless sessions from David Bowie and Lou Reed to John Mellencamp and Morrissey. He toured with Bob Dylan and was lifelong sideman to Mott The Hoople legend Ian Hunter. He was band leader of Bowie’s Spiders From Mars, and produced and played with dozens of other artists often more for pleasure than for self-acclaim or financial reward. He was considered to be the finest British guitarist to emerge since the days of Clapton and Beck.
Ronson was also a modest, thoughtful and generous figure. His passing in April 1993 after a valiant fight against liver cancer was a tragedy for music and the many people who had the privilege of meeting him, both fellow musicians and fans alike. On November 5, 2007, Mick Ronson was the third person to receive Classic Rock’s Tommy Vance Inspiration Award. Here we tell the true story of Mick’s life and legacy with new and contemporary observations from those who experienced the very special magic of glam rock’s brightest star.
Michael Ronson was born on May 26, 1946 in Hull. The first son of George and Minnie Ronson [with two younger siblings, Maggi and David], Mick was given an accordion by a neighbour when he was three, later took piano lessons and played the recorder at school and harmonium in the family church. He wanted to learn the cello, and attended violin lessons in preparation but gave up after three years. Hull was a tough city, and carrying a violin case made Mick a target of fun. He didn’t play an instrument for another three years but his musical grounding had taken root.
Trevor Bolder: “To me, Mick Ronson will always be my mate from Hull, not a famous rock musician. Just a mate – just a lad from Hull. I found out years later that my grandmother taught Mick to play piano, so I guess she had a lot to do with his musical upbringing. With a gran like mine you had to be good at music!”
Benny Marshall: “The first band I ever saw Ronson in was The Mariners. Mick was somewhat anonymous in The Mariners as he was playing alongside a local favourite and good friend, one Rick Kemp, later to become the bass player with Steeleye Span. Mick’s next band was The Crestas. When he joined, we asked the singer Eric Lee who he was. He said: ‘Oh, that’s Ronno’. And that was the moment where Mick was given the nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life.”
In mid-65 Ronson moved to London and joined a band called The Voice, not knowing that they were sponsored by a religious sect. Meanwhile, the guy who’d chosen him as his replacement had made a connection that would be very valuable to Mick…
Miller Anderson: “I’d formed a band with Ian Hunter called The Scenery. I took Ian along to meet Mick at a Voice gig at the Swan in Tottenham. After the show Ian said of Mick: ‘He’s good, but not as good as you!’. I think he was a little bit hasty there. He certainly changed his mind later! In the end, The Voice decided to go to Mexico to some deserted beach to continue being a bunch of cults! They dropped poor old Mick off at the side of the M1 motorway in the middle of the night, with his equipment, without any notice…”
A short tenure in a Motown covers band called The Wanted didn’t last long, and Mick returned dejected to his home town in 1966. One of Hull’s most popular groups were The Rats, who had disbanded just before Mick left London. Singer Benny Marshall and drummer Jim Simpson kept the name and tried to find a new guitarist and bass player.
Keith Cheesman: “It was the mid-60s and a new style of guitar playing was evolving.String bending was the name of the game and only a handful of guitarists had mastered it, and they all became the greats of rock guitar: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. In Hull and the surrounding area, and probably for miles around, Mick was the first to master this style. He was also the first to learn the trick of using a banjo string for the top E and moving all the other strings up one to create a light-gauge string set. Custom-gauge guitar strings were not available in those days and neither were guitar player magazines. Mick was way ahead! Ronno’s favourite drink was ‘black velvet’ – a mix of Guinness and cider – but one pint of that stuff and he would be legless!”
For a short time, Mick joined forces with Robert Palmer [known then by his real name Alan Palmer], with Keith Chessman on bass and Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey on drums.
Keith Cheesman: “[This was] circa 1969. Within the local scene Palmer and Ronson stood out as potential superstars,. and I think they both had a desire to work together. However, Mick and Alan/Robert were both essential to their relevant groups, so the rehearsals were held in secret. I think the reason it never got past rehearsals was both Mick and Alan’s loyalty to their respective bands. I remember one session we were trying out a version of Coloured Rain by Traffic.”
In early 1970, when Ronson was employed as a municipal gardener with Hull City Council, John Cambridge came home and encouraged a reluctant Mick to come to London to play with a singer-songwriter called David Bowie.
John Cambridge: “The story of me asking Mick to join David while Ronson was creosoting lines on a rugby pitch is true. I had pestered Bowie and Tony Visconti, telling them that I knew a great guitarist in Hull, and as I was going back home for a few days I could bring him back to Haddon Hall for the pair of them to vet. I caught up with Mick while he was working as a gardener, marking the lines on a school rugby pitch. Ronson was dressed in a navy donkey jacket and his trousers were tucked into his wellies. I then had to persuade Mick to come to London while walking up and down the pitch with him.”
David Bowie, championed by DJ John Peel, was working on some tracks for the BBC. Mick and David met for the first time in February 1970 at the Marquee, and two days later Ronson played with Bowie on a Radio One session. Mick had come to London with his pregnant girlfriend Denise; she returned to Hull within a week and gave birth to their son, Nicholas.
Bowie’s latest concept, The Hype, featured Ronson [as Gangsterman], John Cambridge and bassist Tony Visconti. Around this time Ronson was also enlisted by Michael Chapman to play on his debut LP Fully Qualified Survivor, said to be John Peel’s favourite album of 1970.
Michael Chapman: “When it came to doing my second album, Fully Qualified Survivor, they wanted me to have these London session guitarists on it, but I said: ‘Bugger off! I know a gardener in Hull who’ll blow them out of the water’.”
Through Michael Chapman and his producer Gus Dudgeon, Ronson played with Elton John on a song titled Madman Across The Water. In May 1970 Bowie began recording The Man Who Sold The World, an album largely driven by Mick’s robust guitar playing.
Tony Visconti: “Mick Ronson just floored us. When David and I met him we knew he’d fit in looks-wise, but we had no idea what was coming until he picked up his Les Paul and played for us. He really didn’t have to be taught the few songs we’d already worked up with John Cambridge. Mick watched our hands on the guitar and bass necks and he just knew what to play. He was a blessing. But he didn’t say much. We thought he was just a cool, silent type. Later we found out that our apartment in Beckenham was very ‘big time’ for him and he was simply overwhelmed. I remember us all going to the pub, and he became tipsy after half a pint of shandy. Soon he became comfortable in his new surroundings, and once he and John Cambridge started to banter in semi-intelligible Hull-ese his sense of humour surfaced and it was often cruel. He referred to Bowie as ‘Norman Wisdom’ once, and when he saw that it irked him he didn’t stop calling David ‘Norman’ until the joke became very, very old. He wasn’t all peace and love.”
Ronson’s classical training soon came in handy.
Tony Visconti: “Mick admitted to taking years of violin and piano lessons. I never heard him play violin, but his piano playing was really good. After he saw me write some parts out for a keyboard player on The Man Who Sold The World sessions he wrote a mini-score for four recorders that you can hear in a break on All The Madmen. Mick and I played them. His skill grew to such a point where he wrote string parts for the Hunky Dory album.”
Inbetween, Ronson returned to Hull and formed a new band, Ronno. Their only release was a 1971 Vertigo single before work on Hunky Dory, and Ronson broadened his track record with his first string arrangements on Changes and Life On Mars?. David also hired up-and-coming manager Tony DeFries who secured a new record deal with RCA. Before Hunky Dory hit the streets, Bowie, Ronson, Bolder and Woodmansey were back in Trident Studios recording The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, a now classic album that contained one of Mick’s finest guitar work-outs: Moonage Daydream.
Suzanne Fussey became David Bowie’s wardrobe mistress, hairdresser and Ronson’s girlfriend. Suzi created the famous flame-red ‘Ziggy’ hairstyle, and later married Mick in 1977.
Suzi Ronson: “After joining David, Mick was unsurprisingly reluctant to adopt the glitter and make-up. After all, he was from Hull and he was nervous of what people would think. He was not really the type to put on make-up, but he got surprisingly used to it and even liked it after a short time. His parents got a lot of flak for their son – paint over their car, that sort of thing.”
Phil Manzanera: “I first met Mick at the Croydon Greyhound pub when I turned up early for the Roxy Music sound check as we were supporting David Bowie. We’re talking about a venue that holds 500 people! I walked in and all four Spiders From Mars were sat in an empty room above the pub dressed in Spiders gear, and I was dressed in my bug-eye outfit. We looked ridiculous, but the punters loved it. I always admired Mick for his fantastic melodic playing and tone, and he was the perfect foil for David at that point.”
Bowie and The Spiders toured widely in 1972 and, during a gig in Oxford, photographer Mick Rock captured one of popular music’s truly iconic images when David simulated ‘fellatio’ on Ronson’s guitar for the first time.
Mick Rock: “Ronno was Ziggy’s anchor. His guitar gave the music its rock’n’roll edge. In performance he played the perfect robust foil to David’s ambiguous persona. He also did all the live and studio arrangements. It’s impossible to imagine Ziggy’s magical rise without him.”
Leee Black Childers: “Working with Mick Ronson was a hoot. On our first tour across the States, while others grumbled about the hotels, travel or food, each town seemed to open Ronno’s eyes wider. He jumped at anything gladly. Once, in Phoenix, Arizona, I recall he jumped a little too enthusiastically. Being unfamiliar with desert conditions, he went swimming in the motel pool a lot. As a result, his fair British complexion went scarlet red from the blazing sun and his bleached blond hair went bright green from the chlorinated pool water. He looked just like a big grinning Christmas present!”
Bowie and Ronson followed Ziggy Stardust with Aladdin Sane, David’s first No.1 album. Mick was increasingly highlighted on this record, and his stinging, razoring guitar on Panic In Detroit, Cracked Actor and The Prettiest Star was astonishing.
Ken Scott: “Is David Bowie talented? Absolutely. Is David Bowie worthy of the adulation often heaped upon him? Sometimes. Would everyone know his name if not for his pairing with Mick Ronson? Quite possibly not. Ronno was the major part of the team that brought David to the forefront of modern music. He made my job as an engineer and producer so much easier and enjoyable. I can only speak for myself, but I know the five records we did together would have been nowhere near as good without the personality and unbounded talents Mick Ronson brought to the studio everyday.”
In the early 70s Bowie and Ronson collaborated with a number of other artists. They produced Lou Reed’s seminal Transformer album, and while David received most credit for this he later acknowledged that Mick made a massive contribution to the sessions playing guitar and piano. Reed later admitted that Mick’s arrangements and influence was stronger than David’s. [“Ronson was an incredible guitar player,” said Reed. “A great producer and great arranger. A lovely man.”] Bowie and Ronson also produced Lulu, scoring a hit with The Man Who Sold The World.
Lulu: “Mick Ronson was the first guitarist who ever accessed and combined a pop/rock and punk ethic in his guitar playing. His style was totally unique to the day. I loved working with Mick in the studio. He was not a diva, he was a kind and gentle soul.”
Bowie also assisted Mott The Hoople’s career in 1972, writing the anthemic classic All The Young Dudes and producing their album of the same name. Mick composed and arranged a stunning orchestral accompaniment for Ian Hunter’s composition Sea Diver, making a vital connection between Hunter and Ronson that would last a lifetime.
Ian Hunter: “I asked Mick what it would cost to do the string arrangement on Sea Diver and he told me 20 quid. He wrote it on a cigarette packet. I don’t think he ever got paid.”
Ronson also collaborated with three fellow stable-mates at RCA Records, producing and playing on albums by Dana Gillespie, Bob Sargeant and country rockers Pure Prairie League. At the climax of a UK tour, on July 3, 1973 David Bowie invited Ronson’s guitar hero Jeff Beck to join the Spiders on stage at Hammersmith Odeon. The music world was stunned when David announced his retirement from live work at the end of their set, thus heralding Ziggy’s and The Spiders’ demise.
Suzi Ronson: “After the ‘retirement announcement’, David, Angie, Mick, me and some friends went to Italy for a holiday. Mick and I fell in love in Italy. He began planning his first solo album for Mainman and started to write at the villa in Rome. In the evenings he would play me Italian music: Lucio Battisti and Claudio Baglioni were his favourites and he covered a song by each of them [Music Is Lethal and The Empty Bed] on his two RCA albums.”
Ronson stayed with Bowie for the recording of David’s 60s covers album Pin Ups, while Tony DeFries and Mainman started to position Mick for solo stardom. After Pin Ups, Ronson linked up with Bowie only four times professionally – an appearance on David’s 1980 Floorshow filmed at The Marquee in October 1973, a spontaneous walk-on at an early-80s Bowie show in Toronto, a razor-sharp solo on a cover version of I Feel Free for David’s Black Tie, White Noise, and a live performance at The Freddie Mercury Tribute concert in April 1992.
By 1975 David had become the Thin White Duke and turned his attention to soul music. Sadly, despite Ronson’s massive input and creativity on five of Bowie’s best studio albums, Mick was never given any song writing credits.
Dana Gillespie: “I think when David Bowie dropped The Spiders in 1973 and moved on to work with other musicians, Mick Ronson was very hurt by that.”
RCA Records marketed Mick expensively as a teen heart-throb, but as a glamorous Jeff Beck would have been more appropriate. His first solo album, Slaughter On 10th Avenue, was a notable record with stellar guitar playing, especially on the title track and Only After Dark. The album made the UK Top 10, but Mick was not given time to develop as a solo artist.
Martin Turner: “Bowie and Mick were like a Technicolor version of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. I also saw Ronno at one of his two London shows in early 1974 when he was promoting Slaughter… Ronson had a large band on stage, including Trevor Bolder and Mike Garson, horns and girl singers. Mick really did look the part and was a stunning guitar player but seemed genuinely uncomfortable being band leader and vocalist. You could tell he was nervous in this new role as soon as he stepped up to the mic. I liked his two solo records very much, but I think that Mick really wasn’t cut out to be a solo figure. Thank God we had him as a sideman to Ian Hunter and all the other stars that he helped.”
Ronson wanted to ditch his solo career but agreed to fulfil contractual obligations for RCA with a second album, Play Don’t Worry, which reached the UK top 30. Then, from left field, Ian Hunter invited Ronson to join Mott The Hoople. With Ronson installed, the band cut a single and played several European gigs. Shortly afterwards Mott The Hoople ceased to exist.
Morgan Fisher: “Mick was with Mott The Hoople for such a short time. I didn’t really have a chance to get to know him. When he recorded his guitar solo on Saturday Gigs he asked us to leave him alone in the studio so he could get on with it. It took him two whole days!”
Ian Hunter: “Mick taking two days for the solo on Saturday Gigs shows how much he really cared and how much he wanted to make the song and Mott The Hoople work.”
Ronson now knew that his strengths lay as an important musical partner, and he energetically encouraged Hunter to make a solo record using studio time that had been booked for Mott. The Ian Hunter album remains a jewel and one of the best rock albums of the 70s. Ian confesses the project was largely driven by Mick’s enthusiasm and inspiration, as exemplified by his solo on Hunter’s song The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nuthin’ But The Truth.
Ian Hunter: “I remember just before the session [for The Truth…], Mick read a scathing review of Play Don’t Worry which was vicious and personal. He went bright red. We were doing the track and he went out to do the solo. We got it in five minutes flat. If he hadn’t read that review it would have taken us about three days. Mick was positively brilliant both in the booth and the studio.”
In late 75 Ronson met Bob Dylan in New York’s Greenwich Village, and shortly afterwards Dylan invited Mick to join his touring band. Ronson thought Dylan “sang like Yogi Bear” but joined The Rolling Thunder Revue for eight months, playing with Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn and Bob Neuwirth. He even performed a ‘solo’ number in Dylan’s set, Is There Life on Mars? written by Roscoe West.
Bob Neuwirth: “The band we formed was called Guam; the name was an in-joke with a friend of mine. Later we found out that the US B52s had been based in Guam to attack Vietnam, and the bombing raids were known locally as ‘rolling thunder’. We found this out way after the fact… Let’s just say there was a lot of alcohol involved in the planning. Guam included Rob Stoner, David Mansfield and Steven Soles, and then we sent for T-Bone Burnett. Lots of musicians came along and we just dragged people up on stage. It was just a lark at first. Ronson was a great lead player though, and he just jumped into it. I fell in love with his guitar playing on the spot… Dylan was at the club every night and people like Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen came along. Rambling Jack Smith joined us, and Roger McGuinn came to see us and stayed. Ronson was great every night. There were seven guitarists in the band at one point, but Mick’s brilliance was the way in which he adapted to what everyone else was doing around him. He played every style of music, too – Beck, Hendrix, you name it. Mick Ronson was, quite simply, a tour de force!”
In 1976 Ronson helped Kinky Friedman on his album Lasso From El Passo, and produced and played on Roger McGuinn’s solo record Cardiff Rose.
Roger McGuinn: “After Rolling Thunder was over, I went back to California and decided it was time to record my fourth solo album. I invited Ronson to produce me, using Guam as the studio band. That became the Cardiff Rose album – it was one of my favourites. Mick did a stunning job as producer, perhaps best illustrated on the song Jolly Roger. Mick made the track into a great seafaring song. I don’t know how, but he went out and found wind sounds and creaking noises for the ship’s timbers and assembled the whole thing. He literally was an audio artist. Absolutely brilliant.”
Looking back on his two RCA albums, Ronson felt that his management had tried to turn him into to a David Cassidy-type figure. Cassidy he was not, but he was happy to work with the pop idol, playing sparkling guitar on Cassidy’s hit single Gettin’ It In The Street.
David Cassidy: “Mick Ronson was a far greater musician and a far greater person than anyone was allowed to know. I loved him and admired his uniqueness, and was privileged to have worked with him.”
Based in Woodstock, Ronno formed The Mick Ronson Band and cut several tracks before live work interrupted mixing, and a possible album was shelved. The recordings eventually found commercial release in 1999: Just Like This contained some of Mick’s finest work, with heart-wrenching guitar on songs such as Crazy Love and I’d Give Anything To See You.
Ian Hunter: “In between playing on the road with various people – some who paid him, some who didn’t and some who would hand him their bill at the end of a tour – Mick would go back to Woodstock to see Suzi and Lisa. You never really knew what he was up to, but the Mick Ronson Band tapes had it all – the class, the quality, the emotion and the bits of fun that embodied all of Mick’s work.”
In 1976 Ronson worked with Sparks on an early version of their Big Beat album. In 1977 he played live with Van Morrison and Dr John in Europe [but, contrary to popular opinion, did not contribute to the sessions for Morrison’s A Period of Transition], assisted Roger Daltrey on his album One Of The Boys, produced an album for Topaz, played with Philip Rambow, played on a Benny Mardones album, and provided guitar on several cuts for John Cougar Mellencamp’s album Chestnut Street Incident. Mick later played a major role on American Fool, rescuing a song Mellencamp had rejected – helping make a worldwide hit.
John Mellencamp: “Ronson played on a lot of my records. As a matter of fact, I owe Mick Ronson the hit song Jack And Diane. Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for Jack And Diane, Mick said: ‘Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there’. I thought, ‘What in the fuck does “put baby rattles on the record” mean?’. So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘Let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing, which never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.”
In 1978 Ronson worked with The Rich Kids, a new wave band featuring departed Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock along with Steve New and Rusty Egan. Mick produced their album Ghosts Of Princes In Towers and toured with the band.
Glen Matlock: “I first came across Mick Ronson when I was working in Malcolm McLaren’s shop Let It Rock in the King’s Road. Ian Hunter, Mick and Suzi walked in one day and I was chuffed to meet them. Mick was interested in a pair of pink loafers. I had to get every box down in the shop to get the right size, as he had tiny size 6 feet. We sorted out a pair that fitted, and then Mick thought I was upset at having to pull all the boxes out. I told him I wasn’t, but he was straight up the ladder putting all the shoe boxes back with me. A lovely bloke from the off.”
Rusty Egan: “The Rich Kids, The Skids … we were all influenced by Ronson.”
Elektra Records suggested to Mountain drummer Corky Laing that he write with Ian Hunter, and the duo recorded with Mountain bassist Felix Pappalardi and Ronson [Mick joked the new band was to be called Mott The Mountain] and then John Cale. The first set of recordings found posthumous release as The Secret Sessions. The Hunter/Ronson/Cale album remains unissued.
Corky Laing: “As a drummer I have been very fortunate to play and record with the very best guitar players of our times. Ronson was just that: the very best.”
In the late 70s and early 80s Ronson worked on albums by Rue Morgue, David Johansen, Ellen Foley and on Meat Loaf’s Deadringer album.
David Johansen: “Me and Ronson met at the Gramercy Park Hotel when Bowie came over. We both enjoyed a cocktail. When Mick moved to New York we’d hang out, and he produced a record for me called In Style. Mick had, like, frosted hair and manicured nails and all that jazz – he was one of the cats. On his birthday I gave him a fine sharkskin suit which was very hip at the time. He asked: ‘What do you want me to do with this?’. I said: ‘Wear it – you’ll look good’. And with his thick Hull accent Mick said: ‘I don’t give a fook how I look!’. To me, that’s funny. What a great human being. I dug him like crazy.”
In early 1979 Hunter, Ronson and members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band cut You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic. Subsequent touring – as the Ian Hunter Band With Mick Ronson – resulted in a stunning live album, Welcome To The Club.
Joe Elliott: “The first time I met Ronno was in 1980 at The Ritz in New York. The first words out of Mick’s mouth when we were introduced were ‘Ay up, lad!’. Not really what I expected from the dude who played that solo on Moonage Daydream, that other solo on The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nuthin’ But The Truth, and the guy I’d first seen on stage at Sheffield City Hall on the 1975 Hunter Ronson tour!”
In 1981 Mick recorded and toured the US with ex-Rolling Thunder man T-Bone Burnett as support to The Who. He’d turned down a far more lucrative offer to play live with Bob Seger.
T-Bone Burnett: “Mick didn’t have a formula. That’s the trick. He just had the touch. He was courageous. Any time the audience would start chanting for The Who, I would just look over at Ronson and let him rip, and suddenly it was as if their minds just turned off. He would do great guitar solos – always the best-received part of our part of the show. It just sounded like the building was falling down. Mick had the presence of a rock star – the charisma.”
Ian Hunter: “Ronson went on the road with T-Bone for $100 a week, sleeping on people’s floors. The alternative was $2,500 a week with Bob Seger, but Mick didn’t like the music and C, F and G. I really admired him for that. Suzi had a fit!”
Mick and Ian began recording the album Short Back ’N’ Sides in 1981, with The Clash’s Mick Jones, a huge Mott fan, producing. Hunter Ronson recorded occasional songs for movies and produced two albums for New Jersey rockers Urgent. Feeling out of place in the 80s, at one point Ronson thought of giving up music completely and becoming a chef. He ran barbecues at Ian’s home and was affectionately known as The Great Marinator. Ronson could never relate to the technique-heavy fretboard gymnastics of the 80s, so he continued working with artists such Steve Harley and Lisa Dalbello.
Steve Harley: “I produced a track for myself in the mid-80s – a so-far unreleased song called Lucky Man – with Mick on electric guitar. It was difficult for me. Not that Ronno was a problem himself – you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer, more generous man and musician – but I was in awe of him, even though we had socialised somewhat and shared a mutual respect. He was an arranger from the top drawer and an inspired guitarist. He played piano well enough to pass most rock band auditions, too. So, there was the musical brilliance. And what with the stone-carved bones and the earthy attitude, Mick had it all, really.”
Sami Yaffa: “I met Mick Ronson in Frankfurt on my 21st birthday in September 1984 when I was in Hanoi Rocks. After the show, both bands went to a bar. I turned around to have a chat with someone, and when I turned back to get my brew there was a bucket containing Moët & Chandon champagne instead. The barmaid said it was a birthday day gift from the gentleman down the bar. I looked to my right and there was Ronno grinning and mouthing ‘happy birthday’. We [ended up drinking] until seven in the morning. Next day was a one big headache.”
In 1987 Ian Hunter toured Canada with The Roy Young Band, and the following year Ian invited Mick to join him for live work. The duo cut the album YUI Orta, billed for the first and only time on record as Hunter Ronson. The record was notable for Mick’s tear-jerking instrumental Sweet Dreamer. Ronson’s 80s collaborations were numerous and included Slaughter And The Dogs, Dead Fingers Talk, Los Illegals, The Visible Targets, The Midge Ure Band, Kiss That, Lisa Dominique, The Melvilles, Andi Sexgang, Funhouse, The Fentons, The Phantoms, Ian Thomas, David Lynn Jones, The Toll, Lennex and Perfect Affair. He also jammed with Duran Duran’s John and Andy Taylor.
John Taylor: “Mick had come a long way from The Spiders From Mars days. No one could hear a thing he was playing, and us louts just could not get our heads around turning down. After some free-form jamming, Mick got pissed off and said he was wasting his time. I guess we were too out-to-lunch to make the most of this opportunity. After we had packed up, Mick and I ended up at Bebop, our favoured watering hole in the Village, and we talked. I honestly don’t remember what about. I wish I did. I wish I’d had the humility that evening to take the spotlight off of myself and put it on Mick. I wish I had taken the time out to tell him just how great he was.”
Ian Thomas: “Mick Ronson was a classic British musician. Guys like Mick Ronson kept the real non-corporate spirit of rock’n’roll alive. He also supported every Indian restaurant that would set your anus on fire. I miss him in the world.”
Mick wrote songs with Sham Morris [Rokko Lee] for a new Ronson project, four of which appeared on Mick’s final album. Ronson also assisted Swedish duo EC2, and moved to Stockholm in 1990 to live with Carola Westerlund from the band. The couple had a son, Kym. During recording sessions with Randy Vanwarmer in Sweden in 1991, Mick started to experience significant back pain. He returned to London, where he was given the earth-shattering news that he was suffering from inoperable and terminal liver cancer and had only months to live. In typical style, Ronson remained focused on fulfilling a series of Scandinavian live dates with Graham Parker, and was determined to beat the disease.
Graham Parker: “The tour started on November 10, 1991 and lasted about three weeks. Mick’s illness had really begun to kick in and, as I recall, we took every Tuesday off so that Mick could fly over to England for chemotherapy. Ronson would return the next day unruffled, uncomplaining, and with that marvellous head of rock-star hair still intact. I think it was the last tour he ever did.”
Joe Elliott: “I received a call from Ian telling me Ronno had cancer. The two of us and David Bowie and John Mellencamp chipped in some money. The Lepps also recorded Only After Dark as the B-side of Let’s Get Rocked. We had high hopes it would sell well, and if it did Mick would get more royalties. I spoke to Mick on the phone a few times after that and he was genuinely grateful, if not a little embarrassed at the fuss this was creating. Ian Hunter told me when Mick first let it be known he was ill he said: ‘Hey, I’ve got cancer!’ as if he’d won the lotto! He was the furthest thing from a drama queen you could expect to meet.”
Ronson’s output and collaborations remained prolific. He worked with Johan Wahlstrom, Ian Hunter, Leather Nun, Dag Finn, The Sonic Walthers, Dalbello and Casino Steel, produced Morrissey’s acclaimed Your Arsenal album and recorded again with Bowie. In addition, Ronson had been writing new material, and suddenly a third solo album [originally titled To Hull And Back] became his remaining lifeblood.
Marc Coker: “When Mick found out that he was ill he moved back to the UK. Tony DeFries lent him a house to stay in, at Hasker Street in London. I happened to be there one day when Perfect Day blasted out on the radio. There you go, Mick – another 50 quid in the bank’, I said. ‘Not likely’, he replied. ‘When we did it I was on less than 50 quid a day, and when we finished, that was it’. I’ve always remembered that: no deals, publishing, mechanicals or residuals! Just play, don’t worry. That song was like the litmus paper for Mick’s whole career.”
For his third and final solo album, Heaven And Hull, Ronson received support from Ian Hunter, John Mellencamp, Chrissie Hynde, Sham Morris and Joe Elliott.
Joe Elliott: “I met them at Dublin Airport and, Jesus, Mick was gaunt! He’d always been wiry, but the change in his appearance was dramatic. His positive attitude to life, though, his humour and honesty, were exactly the same… We did vocals on two tracks, and had three wonderful evenings where I played Mick a bunch of bootlegs and other stuff he’d forgotten he’d performed on. He asked me to make him tapes of some of it. Suzi told me she knew right then that he was close to the end, because he never listened to himself and never kept anything.”
Mick’s last recorded work was with hard rockers The Wildhearts. Ronson also reunited one last time with Ian Hunter and David Bowie, in April 1992, at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Mick played on All The Young Dudes and Heroes. Joe Elliott and Phil Collen of Def Leppard provided backing vocals on …Dudes. [“Phil and I were like a couple of kids that had won the pools that day,” says Elliott.]
Ginger: “Mick turned up at the studio with his guitar case. We expected him to open it and reveal the beautiful Les Paul he was famous for playing, but instead he pulled out this grubby blue Telecaster. We were a little shocked when he told us he didn’t have a Les Paul – not even a Gibson endorsement like we had. We decided that we would all play our solos [on the song My Baby is a Head Fuck] using the same guitar, CJ’s Les Paul Standard. Man, Mick made that guitar sound fantastic. He was playing with a bottle neck and wah-wah pedal and made it cry and wail, while we fumbled around with our Chuck Berry licks. With Mick it was impossible not to want to get close to him. He projected nothing but warmth. You just prayed that a little of his beautiful energy would rub off on you.”
After The Freddie Mercury Tribute, Mick’s health deteriorated desperately. But in his final months – and in typical Ronson style – this was not the picture he painted externally.
Ian Hunter: “If Mick was sick for 23 hours a day, then the other hour he’d be on the phone telling everybody how wonderful he felt. But then when I moved in with him towards the end I saw what he was doing. The morphine would come down to a point where he’d be totally sane, and then he would pick up the phone and he was telling everybody how wonderful he felt. He wanted everyone not to worry about him. The first thing out of his mouth was: ‘How are you?’.”
In spite of his incredible spirit, Mick’s strength waned and his health declined. Further sessions with Bryan Adams, Morrissey and Meat Loaf never took place, and the Heaven And Hull album was not fully completed. Mick Ronson passed away in London on April 29, 1993.
David Ronson: “Over all the years, I never heard Mick say a bad word about anyone in his life. Mick would treat everyone equally, irrespective of class, colour, creed, profession and skill level. He saw the ‘person’ and nothing else. I try every day to take some of Mick’s philosophy and be a better person, but somehow I seem to struggle. Michael was a truly wonderful man. We all miss him terribly.”
Maggi Ronson: “He was a man with a great love for others and a dignified human being. He was and always will be my hero through all my life.”
Suzi Ronson: “Mick was loveable, kind, gentle and breathtakingly handsome, a really beautiful man, but the thing he excelled at was his sense of humour. When he told a joke, he would be laughing so much that before he finished it everyone would be laughing with him. His one-liners were exceptional. When Ian and Trudi’s new puppy shit in their living room, Mick’s answer was [Hull accent again]: ‘Keeps flies out ’t kitchen!’. Mick was the eternal optimist.”
Lisa Ronson: “I miss my dad very much and I think about him every day. He has been a huge influence in many lives, but I think he influenced me more than most. He taught me to be strong and courageous, but most of all he taught me to be kind. To this day I continue to meet people who met him and they tell me stories of how kind he was to them. There is so much we can do and should do to help those around us. It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”
Ian Hunter: “Professionally it was a privilege to play with Mick, personally it was a privilege to have known him. He was a nutcase but his legacy is pure class. Guitarists will emulate him as long as rock’n’roll is around.”
This was first published in Classic Rock issue 114.