It is, of course, wholly impossible to discuss Ral Donner without at least a passing nod to Elvis… let’s face it, Ral has long been acknowledged as the all-time finest Presley ‘soundalike’. He famously registered his breakthrough hit in 1961 with ‘Girl Of My Best Friend’, the song from Elvis Is Back which had been a massive hit for The King in the UK and Europe, but was never issued as a single in the US. Both versions were so aurally alike that when Ral’s disc first began to break, its success was propelled by strong rumours that ‘Ral Donner’ was actually Elvis, singing under a pseudonym. But although his subsequent releases certainly confirmed the similarity between their voices, Ral turned out to be a great singer in his own right - indeed, his very next release, ‘You Don’t Know What You’ve Got’, was a million seller. He went on to carve out both a significant career and a big reputation and ironically, rarely recorded other material associated with Elvis until many years later. Moreover, Ral enjoyed legendary status among discerning R&R collectors; whilst not vast, his recorded legacy is of an exceptional standard and by the 70s, he’d become one of the most heavily-bootlegged artists of his era.
He always insisted that he’d never set out to copy Presley. But, as he readily admitted, Ral - like just about every other singer of his generation - was both inspired and heavily influenced by Elvis, whilst there can be no real doubt that the people he worked with fully exploited the uncanny similarity in their voices. This was readily evident in much of the material he was asked to record, and the arrangements and production of those songs. Paradoxically, during the early 1960s, as Elvis descended into his own dodgy B-movie hell, many of The King’s increasingly disenchanted fans were of the belief that Ral was cutting better records than their idol; certainly, although it was only a regional hit, ‘I Got Burned’ knocked Presley’s then-current A-side, ‘One Broken Heart For Sale’, into a cocked hat.
Born Ralph Stuart Emanuel Donner in Norwood Park, Chicago, Illinois, on February 10th 1943, he was the youngest of four children. His father (of German descent) and his mother (of Italian extraction) both loved music and encouraged him from infancy: “I was very lucky... I was born into a family with a keen appreciation for good music, which influenced me from a very early age. I was around three or four when I began imitating Al Jolson for my family & friends... between years eight through eleven it was all pretty much sacred music... the church choir, as a soloist, some local television. A highlight was singing at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, on a radio broadcast... I sang ‘It Is No Secret’, by Stuart Hamblen, the C&W singer who’d performed it there the previous week.”
When R&R arrived in the mid-50s, Ral was quick to embraced it: “By age twelve I was singing school assemblies... we did tunes like ‘Dungaree Doll’ and ‘Rock & Roll Waltz’. But then in 1956, when I was thirteen, Rock & Roll came crashing through with things like ‘Rock Around The Clock’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘My Baby Left Me’... I was totally consumed by R&R’s boundless energy and emotional freedom... it was the influence of Elvis Presley that made me want to go into music. I put together a R&R band and in a matter of weeks, we were playing at high school dances.”
That first group of Ral’s, comprised of Taft schoolmates, called themselves The Rocking Five. They were soon extremely popular locally and were fortunate to get a couple of important breaks: “After a few months we were - surprisingly - booked to play Sunday matinees at quite a plush dinner club on the northwest side of Chicago... and from there we were invited to play at The Chez Paree, a famous Chicago nightclub, also for Sunday matinees. We did this for thirteen weeks, this time playing to all-teenaged audiences.”
“Another important early break was being booked on Alan Freed’s ‘Big Beat Show’ when it played the Chicago Civic Opera House... it put us onstage with some of the biggest-selling record acts in R&R at that time. Along with this we made hundreds of appearances at record hops and various other shows for several disc jockeys in and around Chicago, trying to get our name known and to get as much exposure as possible for when our record came out. We were working as Ral Donner & The Gents by now, and we’d cut a few demo’s...songs like ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and ‘Oh Boy’...”
“As far as influences go, I was fortunate to have been brought up in a household where Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Dean Martin records were always playing... the early black groups also had a lasting influence on me... The Ink Spots, and later, The Platters, Lee Andrews & The Hearts, The Five Satins, Harvey & The Moonglows, The Flamingos, Shep & The Limelites. Also, Jerry Butler... I’ve always admired the thick, heavy sound of his voice... and ‘Mr Excitement’, Jackie Wilson. I wore out the vinyl on Dion & The Belmonts’ ‘Where Or When’ and ‘That’s My Desire’, and The Diamonds’ ‘Church Bells May Ring’. Listening to their records always made me wish I was part of a group...”
“Naturally, the greatest influence on R&R was Elvis... I followed his career from the beginning, collected all his records. I’ll never forget the incredible excitement he generated in Chicago at the International Amphitheatre back in 1957. I still listen to his early recordings... songs like ‘Mystery Train’, ‘Tryin’ To Get To You’, ‘Hard Headed Woman’... I think everyone in commercial popular music today owes him a great gratitude. He met the resistance, beat it, and cleared the way for everyone else...”