Twenty years after his death, we look back on the life and career of musician Mick Ronson, influential sideman who toured and recorded with some of rock’s most legendary acts. Originally published May 2011.
Mick Ronson (left) and Howard Helms (right rear)
performing during a Mott the Hoople concert
(Wikimedia Commons/Mike Bunyard)
Mick Ronson grew up a musical polymath trained on the cello, piano, violin and harmonium. Like many British musicians of his era, he was first inspired by American rock 'n' roll, falling for the rockabilly guitar of Duane Eddy. By 17 he had joined his first band, The Mariners, before his talents landed him with The Crestas, a well-respected local act steadily gigging in and around his hometown of Hull.
But Ronson had higher ambitions, and at age 19 he left for London. His first sojourn there wouldn’t last long – after stints with two bands, he was back in Hull, this time playing guitar for The Rats. Like The Rolling Stones, The Rats played rock versions of Delta blues songs, and when the Stones hit it big, The Rats landed a record deal with Columbia.
Sadly, the resulting record didn’t exactly race up the charts. But Ronson, though stuck in the relative backwater of Hull, became somewhat of a guitar hero, the local equivalent of Jeff Beck (a personal fave of Ronson). To make ends meet, he held a day job as a gardener for the Hull City Council.
Things didn’t really start cooking for Ronson until 1970. First, he played guitar on some tracks for Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album, which, though it didn’t chart, ranked in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the Top 500 albums of all time. But the real breakthrough came with David Bowie.
Former Rats bandmate John Cambridge was playing with Bowie and hoped to get Ronson to join him, but the guitarist took some convincing, having had no luck in his previous moves to London. A meeting with Bowie himself convinced Ronson and two days later he was playing live with Bowie on BBC radio. By April, he was working with Bowie on recording The Man Who Sold the World.
The album got only a middling reception upon release (it did better in the U.S. than in the U.K.) though it would later be cited as one of the earliest glam rock albums and a goth rock progenitor. The music was largely arranged by bassist Tony Visconti and Ronson, and the guitarist would play an even bigger role in creating Bowie’s next album, Hunky Dory – an album known mostly for being the first time The Spiders From Mars all played together (though it also boasted the track “Changes,” an FM rock staple now that never cracked the top 40 in its day).
Bowie’s next, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, is widely regarded as one of the best rock albums of all time, and it would influence generations of musicians. If they weren’t the inventors of glam rock (a designation that probably belongs to T. Rex), Ziggy Stardust made Bowie and his band its kings. In addition to being an indispensible studio presence, Ronson played a bigger part in Bowie’s stage show starting with the Ziggy Stardust tour. From being a more or less anonymous sideman, he’d risen to a full-fledged collaborator.
“Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character,” Bowie said in 1994. “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 and roll dualism."
Ronson continued recording with Bowie, lending his guitar to the Aladdin Sane and Pin-Up albums, but by 1973 Bowie felt he’d reached a musical dead-end with the group and disbanded it.
Ronson was immediately signed as a solo artist, and his debut Slaughter on 10th Avenue peaked at #9 on the U.K. album charts. His next didn’t sell quite as well, and by then it was apparent that Ronson as a solo artist was never going to reach Bowie heights. Nonetheless, a Creem readers’ poll in 1974 ranked Ronson as the second best guitarist in the world, placing him just behind Jimmy Page but ahead of Eric Clapton.
Ronson next played briefly with Mott the Hoople, which would lead to a long musical relationship with Ian Hunter. Hunter would introduce Ronson to Bob Dylan, who invited Ronson to join the Rolling Thunder Review tour in 1975.
Ronson would also enjoy a rewarding career as a producer, shaping albums by acts as diverse as John Cougar Mellencamp (who credited Ronson with making key contributions to the hit “Jack and Diane”) and Morrissey.
Ronson’s final onstage appearance was at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, where he performed once more with David Bowie. Ronson died of liver cancer in 1993 at the age of 46.
Appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show shortly after Ronson’s death, Bowie remarked: “The band – The Spiders From Mars – that was the whole situation that sort of got me the kind of fame I had in the early '70s. The lead guitarist for that band was Mick Ronson and unfortunately, tragically, he succumbed to cancer 3 or 4 days ago... and in his passing I want to say that of all the early '70s guitar players Mick was probably one of the most influential and profound and I miss him a lot.”