Ronnie McNeir

Ronnie McNeir (1949- ) is an American singer, songwriter, and musician known for both his solo work and his long association with the Motown soul and rhythm and blues (R&B) group The Four Tops. His high tenor voice and smooth, jazzy sound, combined with his skills on the piano and synthesizer, place him among the innovators of the genre. Over the course of his career, he has worked with such noted musicians as Smokey Robinson, Teena Marie (Mary Christine Brockert), David Ruffin, Kim Weston, René Moore, Theo Peoples, and fellow Alabamian Eddie Kendricks. A prolific songwriter, session musician, vocalist, and producer, McNeir remains active with The Four Tops, touring across the United States and internationally.

Lewis Ronald McNeir was born in Camden, Wilcox County, on December 14, 1949, to Lewis and Delores McNeir; he was one of three siblings. When McNeir was only six months old, his father left the U.S. Army and found work with General Motors in Detroit, Michigan, and moved his wife and infant son to the suburb of Pontiac. McNeir kept close ties with Alabama, however, noting that he spent a week or two every summer until he was 17 on his grandparents’ farm. McNeir’s youth in Michigan was filled with musical influences. His mother was a classically trained pianist who played at home and for her church choir. McNeir began playing piano at age 10 but objected to his instructor’s demand that he begin his piano studies by learning classical piano. McNeir instead taught himself to play by listening to popular records, especially Motown and jazz artists. In 1966, he won a talent contest that led to his debut single,”Sitting in My Class,” released on De-To Records in 1967. McNeir was also a talented high school basketball player and was recruited by Fisk University for a scholarship. In 1968, he was involved in a car accident that left him unable to play competitively and also exempted him from being drafted for the Vietnam War, so McNeir chose to concentrate on developing his music career.

In 1971, Ronnie moved to Los Angeles to pursue his career in music. He struggled to gain a foothold in the industry but was able to earn money playing keyboards for a church choir. While playing for the choir, he met and befriended Motown artists Kim Weston and Mickey Stevenson. Using Weston’s private studio, he recorded his first album, Ronnie McNeir, for the RCA label. It was then that McNeir, a proficient keyboardist, first became acquainted with synthesizers. He immediately saw their potential and incorporated the sound into his new album. He also began to play with other musicians and develop connections throughout the soul music scene. McNeir returned to Michigan in 1975 and in 1976 released a record for the Motown minor label Prodigal Records. This album, also entitled Ronnie McNeir, contained the Billboard-charting singles “Wendy is Gone,” “I’m Your Lover,” and “Saggitarian Affair.” Following the success of these singles, McNeir sang “I’m Your Lover” on the nationally syndicated television show Soul Train. That same year, Motown signed McNeir and released the album Love’s Comin’ Down on the Motown Records label. In 1977, McNeir also co-arranged the score for the Motown-produced film Big Time with soul legend William “Smokey” Robinson.

In the late 1970s, McNeir began working for Detroit-based producer Don Davis’s Groovesville Productions, appearing on songs by David Ruffin and L. J. Reynolds, among others. McNeir also recorded under his own name with Groovesville, releasing the single “A Different Kind of Love,” sung with Rena Scott, on Davis’s RCA-distributed label, Tortoise International. In 1981, McNeir was nominated for a Grammy Award in the gospel category for his collaboration with the Rance Allen Group on the song “I Feel Like Going On.” A 1984 duet with artist Teena Marie, “We’ve Got to Stop (Meeting Like This),” appeared on her platinum album Starchild. In 1985, they performed the song on Soul Train. In 1984, Capitol Records released The Ronnie McNeir Experience, with the charting single “Come Be with Me.” In 1985, McNeir composed and produced the song “I Couldn’t Believe It” for former Temptations members David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, on the RCA label, and it rose into the upper half of Billboard magazine’s R&B charts. While working as a performer in Las Vegas, McNeir continued recording music, releasing the albums Love Suspect (1987), Life & Love (1989), Rare McNeir (1996), and Down in the Neighborhood (1997). That latter album stands out among his others as a departure from his usual romantic themes. On it, McNeir sang of inner-city decline and the people and communities he saw struggling with urban poverty.

While also working as a solo artist and session musician, McNeir began his enduring association with The Four Tops. His first recording with the group was on two tracks for their 1977 album The Show Must Go On. He would later become the ensemble’s musical director for several years. He appeared on their 1995 Motown album, Christmas Here With You, and in 2000 was asked to switch from his position as their keyboardist and step in as a vocalist to fill in for the ailing lead singer, Levi Stubbs. That shift would mark a turning point in his position within the group, with McNeir becoming a regular stand-in for the main singers. In addition to his work with The Four Tops, McNeir has continued to write and record his own music, releasing the albums Ronnie Mac and Company (2007, Jupiter Island) and Living My Life (2011, Sunset Island). McNeir’s longevity in the music industry and his wide range of collaborations attest to both his talent and to the respect he is held in by his soul music peers.

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Ronnie McNeir