Who is Ron Levine? Well, Ron Levine is from Syracuse New York, but he has traveled across the nation and played in California, Colorado, Texas, Nashville and numerous places in between. He now resides in Cedar Rapids Iowa. He teaches at Coe College and does lectures across the country. Ron has played everything from western swing to jazz to classical music. Ron says when you get an offer to play, take it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Take any offer you get because you never know where it is going to lead you. This road could lead to another road and you never know where the crossroad is going. Growing up in New York Ron learned to play and compose music from a number of people including classical music legends like John Oberbrunner, Louis Krasner and Earl George. However, Ron Levine’s best known work is not in the classical music field. He has played with a number of well-known country and soft rock artists. I don’t want to fill the page with names so I’ll just give you a few of the more recognizable names: Dottie West, Roy Clark, Merle Haggard, Bertie Higgins, Michael Martin Murphy, Mickey Gilley, Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels, Lobo, Conway Twitty and B.J. Thomas. I don’t know where to stop, there are so many people Ron has played with either as a session player in the studio or as a member of a touring band. This list should give you an idea of how well known Ron Levine is in the music industry. He has been seen on television shows like Nashville Now, Church Street Station and Grand Ole Opry. PBS’s, American Skyline did a special on Ron’s career. He has been called a “virtuoso fiddle player” and is said to have “dancing fingers”. Ron combines Jazz, Blues, Country and Classical music on the violin, mandolin and electric violin to produce his own unique sound. He won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for playing fiddle with Gilley’s Urban Cowboy Band on the recording of Orange Blossom Special/Hoedown from the Urban Cowboy Soundtrack Album. After touring with Dottie West for 3 years, Ron put his music career on hold, to concentrate on raising a family. He hadn’t intended to stop playing music but to slow way down. Multiple Sclerosis changed his plan. His first relapse left him without sensation in his hands or feet. He couldn’t hold a violin, let alone play it. For years Ron has been working through the challenges of playing an instrument he can barely feel. He did regained his ability to play the violin, but his struggle continues as he goes through periods where he is unable to play anything. I am honored to have had the chance to talk to this courageous man. The following interview was done via telephone, someday I hope to meet Ron Levine in person.
Billy Rose: Hey Ron, this is Billy Rose. How are you today?
Ron Levine: Oh, every day is different. I have good days and bad days. Today I’m doing OK.
Billy Rose: I’d like to start out by asking, what your first childhood memories of music are? What kind of music did you enjoy listening to as a child?
Ron Levine: Well, my father played the piano. Then I watched music on TV. I’m dating myself, but I watched Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. When I heard the violins, I wanted to play the violin.
Billy Rose: So you wanted to play the violin right from the beginning.
Ron Levine: Yep, but I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t think it was important.
Billy Rose: So did you start out playing the violin then, was that your first instrument?
Ron Levine: Yep, but not until I was in fourth grade. John Oberbrunner the flautist from the Syracuse Symphony came to my school and played the flute. He was going to put together a school program to teach the kids to play. So, he said come down to the cafeteria on Thursday at 1 o’clock and get your instrument. You can rent an instrument for $10 for the whole school year. Don’t come before one. Because we will not give out any instruments before one. Well, I thought I’d be smart. I was going down there at ten minutes before one. So I got there at ten to one, people were walking out of there left and right. They all had instruments in their hands. I got to the desk and said can I have a flute? The guy said they were gone a half hour ago. I said how about a clarinet? Nope they are gone too. Trumpet? Nope. So the guy took me to the back room and said it doesn’t look like there is anything left. Then up on a shelf he took down a case and dusted it off. This is all we got left. It was a violin. My father was ecstatic, I was so upset. It wasn’t cool to play a violin when you were in fourth grade.
Billy Rose: (laughs) Well, you wanted to be cool, right?
Ron Levine: Of course! A few years later I told my mom I wanted to be a Folk singer. Then she bought me a guitar, and I learned how to play that. But the only instrument I studied was violin. I could play anything that had strings on it. Including the piano.
Billy Rose: So you taught yourself to play the other instruments?
Ron Levine: Yep. Once you know the violin, the rest are easy. The violin is probably the hardest to learn. There are no frets. A piano, guitar whatever, you can look and see where to put your fingers. A violin, you have to hear it.
Billy Rose: Your dad played piano, did anybody else in your family play an instrument?
Ron Levine: My older brother played piano, my younger brother wanted to be like me and play fiddle. He still does play, he lives in Paris.
Billy Rose: So does he play Classical music?
Ron Levine: No, Country. I learned Classical. Once you learn Classical, you can play anything. Once you got the technique, then you can play Jazz, Country whatever.
Billy Rose: When you were a kid what kind of music did you listen to?
Ron Levine: Rock ‘n’ Roll, on the radio. Beatles, Rolling Stones. We had Rock ‘n’ Roll bands as kids. When I was thirteen we put a band together. I always had money in my pocket. You know other kids would work at McDonalds and those kinds of jobs. We would be doing gigs, which paid a little bit better. But it was also much more fun.
Billy Rose: So you learned Classical music in school. Did you go to college?
Ron Levine: Yep, I got a musical degree from Syracuse University. Bachelor of Music.
Billy Rose: Are you from New York?
Ron Levine: Yep, Syracuse. In college, everyone had to learn piano. No matter what instrument you played. I was already pretty much on my way with piano when I started.
Billy Rose: Did you find college to be challenging?
Ron Levine: Well, I was a composition major. I had to do a Junior and Senior recital of my own composition. That took a lot of work. The environment in college, I didn’t appreciate at the time. You would go up to somebody and say I’ve got a piece for a woodwind quintet, do you want to play clarinet? Sure. Go to somebody else and say want to play bassoon? Sure. How cool is that? (laughs) Everybody would play on everybody else’s compositions. We all worked together when it came to music.
Billy Rose: So being a composition major, you were more into the writing, not the performing.
Ron Levine: Well, not really. During college, I had a duo. We played five nights a week. We played Crosby, Stills and Nash, Seals & Crofts, stuff like that. We made enough money to pay for college. I did it all. Whatever, I did it. Even when I lived in Nashville. Whenever somebody would ask me to go on the road for a day or a week whatever, I would take it. The first question I would ask wasn’t what kind of music. It was how much does it pay? I didn’t care what kind of music it was. But my favorite music to play, the most fun, was Western Swing and Jazz. But I can play it all. I just wanted to know what they were paying. I remember, we were playing Your Cheatin’ Heart at the Grand Ole Orpy. The house band would make more money if they would sit in with whoever was playing on the show. So I asked Weldon Myrick, steel player, if he wanted to play with us. He said, sure. I said, you know we’re doing Your Cheatin’ Heart again. He looked down at me, he was about ten feet tall, and he said it all pays the same.
Billy Rose: (laughs) So, did you move from New York to Nashville?
Ron Levine: No, I moved from New York to Pasadena Texas. I played with Mickey Gilley. I was in the Urban Cowboy movie.
Billy Rose: How did you get hooked up with Mickey Gilley?
Ron Levine: He heard our band in New York. He decided to bring us down to Texas. He had just opened a recording studio. It was part of this huge building that his night club was in. He wanted us to record an album, so we did. Nothing happened with the album though. When we down there recording, I made friends with Gilley’s fiddle player. He sent me a letter, you know on paper written with a pen. (laughs)
Billy Rose: What, no email? (laughs)
Ron Levine: No such thing back then. He said, Gilley is looking for a new fiddle player, because he was leaving. So I called Gilley and said I’m your man. Gilley said we’re going on the road in three days. Can you get down here? I said, sure thing, I’ll be there. I hung up the phone and thought how am I gonna get to Texas in three days. But I did it. So I worked with him for two years. Mostly in Colorado. Playing with Mickey Gilley and most country artists was stifling musically. In Colorado I formed a band, we had two fiddles and no lead guitar. I was unchained. I could do anything I wanted. It was great. We did that for a couple years and I thought if I’m going to do anything in the music business, I need to be in L.A. or Nashville. I knew more people in Nashville, so I went there.
Billy Rose: Who did you play with in Nashville? Did you do session work?
Ron Levine: I did some sessions and worked on the road. I did session work with Michael Martin Murphy and some others. I did road work with Dottie West and Kenny Rogers. Lobo, do you know who Lobo is?
Billy Rose: Sure, he did Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.
Ron Levine: Yep, the two of us would go out and play with house bands. I loved it. He’s a good friend. Then I was working for Dottie West, for three years. She was probably the best. You can look it up on YouTube, Dottie West playing Your Cheatin’ Heart with Ron Levine. Look that up and you can see me playing. She would encourage improvisation. Just the opposite of everybody else. Most of the country stars wanted you to play just like the record. They didn’t want you to change anything. Dottie would let you go. I worked for her for three years. Then I got Multiple Sclerosis. I thought well this isn’t going to work. Because if I can’t play, I’m in bad shape. So I got out of the business. But I still composed and I play when I can. It’s interesting, I’ll put out an album, and then my fingers will stop working. Then a couple years later, I’d keep working at it and I would get back to where I could play. I’d put out another album, then loose it again.
Billy Rose: I was looking for your stuff on the internet, and I found Awakenings. The video with your music and your daughter’s artwork. As I sat there watching it, I just thought how much more I appreciated the art and the music both together and separately. They work very well together. It made me wonder what kind of process you have when you sit down to write a song.
Ron Levine: That is not an easy question to answer. My composition teacher taught me to make sure you have the form for your whole piece. Where the tonal center is, where the climax is, development themes things like that. So I kind of try to follow that rule. He used to tell a story about Ravel. Friends would say Maurice let me see your new piece, is it finished? Oh yeah, it’s finished. So he showed it to them and they said say wait this is only the bar lines. Ravel would say oh yeah, that’s the hard part. Well everybody knows that’s the easy part. (laughs) My thought of Awakenings was well, it’s like a trilogy. One is about World War Two and I have another one called Rules of War, which you haven’t heard yet. It’s a double bass and piano. Then after the world is destroyed you have new Awakenings. Where you have a rebirth of the world. My daughter is a great artist, in about a month she is giving her doctorate thesis in chemical engineering. So that should tell you, she’s a lot smarter than I am.
Billy Rose: Well she had to get it from somewhere.
Ron Levine: Well, I don’t know where she got it from, but she’s got it.
Billy Rose: Well you must be very proud of her. Another video I saw was the one about your father. It was called, the Mogen David of Barth on the Baltic.
Ron Levine: On that one, The Mogen David of Barth on the Baltic, I knew I wanted it to sound like Jewish music. So there are some things in there that are Jewish songs. If you know them, you’ll hear them. I knew I wanted suspense. So in my mind I thought Jaws. That part bum bum bum bum bum, I knew where that had to be, and I worked around that outline. And that’s how it came out.
Billy Rose: That story is really gripping, when you listen to the music and read along with the video. I understand that you did not know that story when your dad was alive, is that correct?
Ron Levine: Yep. My brother and I had heard bits and pieces about it. I still get a chill talking about this. When I was 5 years old, I used to sit on the floor and play with this thing. My dad said he made it when he was in prison camp in Germany. It was two triangles, when you latch them together they made a Mogen David (Star of David). When it was unlatched, it just looked like two triangles, so they could hide it in plain sight from the German guards.
Ron’s father, Henry Levine was captured in February 1944 and held until May 1945 in Stalag Luft 1, near the town of Barth. Henry and many others risked their lives to pray to their god as prisoners of war. Henry took it even further, he led secret Jewish religious services for fellow POWs. Henry, who was raised with an Orthodox Jewish education, served as the rabbi, while another man served as cantor. Levine compiled and translated the Jewish prayer book from memory. He also built a handmade wooden star to have at his clandestine services. It is two pieces, each a simple triangle, which latch together to form the Mogen David. The Mogen David is another word for the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism. When unlatched, the star was unrecognizable for what it was and could be hidden from the German guards. When the Germans realized the war was drawing to a close, they decided to speed up their “final solution.” The Jewish POWs were put in separate barracks and told they would be sent to the death camps. Before that could happen, Russian soldiers arrived and liberated the camp. Henry Levine was able to translate for the prisoners because he and the leader of the Russian troops both spoke Yiddish.
Ron is sharing this incredible story through his music, video documentary and through lectures. His brother, Rick, has written a book “The Mogen David of Barth on the Baltic,” based on their father’s experiences as a World War II prisoner in Nazi Germany. Many of Henry’s artifacts and photos have been on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Ron says, I’m doing what I can to make sure people know about it. We say never again, but to this day, there is genocide and extermination of races. Not just my father, but thousands of others, have been willing to risk their lives to pray. The least we can do is tell their story.