After Dashed Hopes And A Spiritual Landing, Ron Surrey Revisits The Dreams Of His Youth

A few weeks ago, a tall man in a suit entered the lobby of The Courant. He was 30 minutes early for our meeting.

"I don't like to talk about myself," says Ron Surrey, pastor of the New Mt. Olive Church of Christ in New Britain.

An hour later, I had taken in the broad strokes of Surrey's life: his childhood in Macon, Ga., hanging around radio station WIBB with Otis Redding and Johnny Jenkins, the wild, early days of Little Charles — Surrey's professional name.

"My father was a quartet singer," Surrey says. "We grew up in a home that was full of music. That's where I first learned to play the guitar, mostly by accident."

Surrey's story is one of youthful dreams and dashed hopes, a failed shot at stardom with a spiritual landing. Now, in his mid-60s, the Vietnam vet is rediscovering his love of music, even though the business scarred him badly in his 20s.

But Surrey is not an oldies act. Recently, he uploaded four separate collections of new music, songs with a message: "God's Minstrel," "One America," "Jump" and "This Time" — to Bandcamp. Scroll around: Surrey's lyrics and melodic gifts, his charisma, his earthy baritone and sense of humor leap out at you.

"Mama Loves Obama," for example, from the album "One America," threads the tune of "I Wish I Was in Dixie" through a martial groove and a pentatonic-blues framework. "1865, emancipation came alive," Surrey sings.

By 1959, many souls died

2008, oh, what a surprise

Four years later, back in the White House

ohhh, a mighty visionary

no, no, no, don't mess with Barry

At 16, Surrey left Macon and headed north to live with his mother and sister in New Britain. He quickly ran into Insurance City Records founder Lew Hanson.

"I was blessed to come in contact with producers and musicians and people that took a liking to what I was doing," Surrey says. "At that time, I was very green and inexperienced, but I was daring."

In 1969, Surrey — unemployed and not enrolled in college — was drafted. He spent two years in Vietnam, learning how to write songs, boosting morale with his guitar and voice and avoiding temptation. It wasn't all bad.

"I stayed away from drugs and all of that, and I kept myself occupied by writing," Surrey says. "I can't say all that negative about it, because if I didn't go through that, I wouldn't have had anything to press me to develop my craft. I had to work extremely hard. Nothing came easy for me."

When he returned to New Britain in 1971, Surrey and Hanson recorded a single called "Listen to the Music," a year before the Doobie Brothers released a song with the same title.

You can go back and hear vintage Little Charles; "Sweet City Woman," a wah-wah heavy single released by Insurance City Records in 1973, is easily found on YouTube. By that point, Surrey's manager was Clyde Otis, a one-time director of A&R for Mercury Records, who had recorded Nat King Cole, Brook Benton and Dinah Washington. (Otis passed away in 2008.)

"Clyde Otis was a big name," Surrey says. "We were on our way to the big time."

How Surrey ultimately left the music business and found a higher calling — thoroughly documented in "Little Charles," a self-published memoir — is both sad and uplifting.

On a late-night drive on I-84, a Vietnam-related flashback thrust him into a panic. The following morning, Otis called to inform him he'd been dropped. After years of striving, his career had stalled. He walked away.

"There were a lot of things I didn't understand and didn't want to understand," Surrey says. "I discovered that it was just too much for me. I couldn't fight it. I had no choice. I believe, if I hadn't made that decision at the time [to quit music], I wouldn't be here talking to you. That's how strong I felt."

A spiritual awakening led him back to school. Over time, Surrey earned an associate's degree, a bachelor of arts, a master's and a doctorate. He was installed as a pastor in 1986.

Surrey now feels he's been given a second chance to do something with his musical talents.

"It got so bad one time that I said, 'I don't understand why I have all of this in me and no way to express it. What am I going to do, take it to the grave?' I got a place that was beyond that, and I was able to just focus on writing. I was doing everything I needed to do, to maintain, to keep my feet on the ground, and I became very content with that."

Chris Surrey, Ron's nephew, is the executive director of Paintbox Labs, a brand marketing and strategic consultancy company. Together, Ron and Chris manage Surron Music and Publishing, developing original film scores, managing artists and publishing storybook-music CDs.

One of these, "Lil' Chucky Charley" cleverly turns Surrey's musical heroes into singing insects: Otis Redding as Daddy Longlegs, Johnny Jenkins as J.J. the Cricket, Max Roach as Max the Roach, and so on. It'll soon be released as an e-book and an iPad app.

A visible member of his community, Surrey is careful to separate his role in the church and his musical goals.

"Yes, I'm a pastor, but I'm an artist, too," Surrey says. "I don't want to be known as a singer who preaches, but a preacher who sings. The way I do that: it's a hobby. Some people like to fish, to hunt, whatever. I like to write songs, about life, about real stuff. I don't like to make it ugly or degrading. You have to have some beauty, cheer folks up."

Surrey doesn't perform much in public, but that might change. Before releasing songs to Bandcamp, he vowed never to record again. But with all the website hits and positive feedback, he'll revisit that decision.

"My songs have a message," Surrey says. "I don't want to be dogmatic. It's not about doctrine. It's about telling the truth in such a way that even a small child can relate to it on that level, trying to get into the minds of people, not as a dictator but as a human being. We're more than just physical. We're a soul and a spirit too."

Stream and purchase Ron Surrey's music on Bandcamp.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is a column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to mhamad@courant.com.

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