Joyce Reeves Milsap, the wife of country star Ronnie Milsap, died Tuesday at age 81. No cause of death was immediately given.
The couple wed in 1965, more than a decade before the singer came to prominence, and were often characterized as joined at the hip as he rose to become one of country’s biggest stars in the ’70s and ’80s. Country music fans and experts often spoke of Ronnie and “Joycie’s” relationship in the same terms as a Johnny-and-June. The couple’s 56th wedding anniversary would have been Oct. 30.
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“I always thought of them as a duo,” said former Sony Nashville chairman Joe Galante, famously a champion of Ronnie Milsap over the decades. “Even though it was always the dynamic Ronnie Milsap, Joyce was everywhere and a true part of everything. Ronnie knew no bounds as an artist and entertainer, and Joyce was there making those connections, filling in any gaps. She was a supporter, a guiding light and a defender when something wasn’t getting done… and because he couldn’t see faces, she’d be that person for him, too.”
“Country music might well have missed the soulful sounds of Hall of Famer Ronnie Milsap without the passion, acumen and love of Joyce Reeves Milsap,” said Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, which named him entertainer of the year in 1977. “Ronnie and his Joycie were one of those inseparable couples who truly were one. Yes, he was the superstar, but she was the woman who not only loved the man, but held him up so everyone else could see and feel their love inside all that classic music. Our hearts go out to Ronnie and their family at this sad time.”
Although the cause of death wasn’t announced, she had been known to be battling leukemia in 2014, when, altogether uncharacteristically, she missed the ceremony in which he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Ronnie Milsap, 78, celebrated Joyce in a statement, saying, “There are no words, and not enough songs in the world, to explain how much I love my Sapphire. She was the music and the feeling inside all of those songs, so if you loved my music, you understand some of how much I loved my my beautiful, beautiful wife. It’s all in the songs, but she was even more. She was the love of my life, the mother of my son, the world’s happiest grandmother — and someone who woke up every day curious and ready for whatever adventure she could get into.”
Milsap continued, “When people tell me they love my music, I always smile, because that music is pure Joyce. We went through lean times laughing, good times beyond our imagination, tough times where we held on to each other for dear life. Blessedly/thankfully, she’s in heaven with our Todd – and I know somehow from heaven, she’s still here with me every day, because that’s just how she was.”
Their son, Todd, died in 2019 at age 49.
“She and Ronnie had the kind of marriage others can only dream of,” said Katy Cook, anchor of “CMT: Hot 20.” “She was Ronnie’s biggest fan and protector. He would play Joyce songs he was considering recording, and she always gave him her honest critique. She had great ear for music, and a great influence on his career. She was business-savvy and had a good eye for real estate, too. … Joyce was so much more than a superstar’s wife; she was the backbone of the operation. Sure, she nailed the Christmas decorations, gifts and cards and, of course, always looked the part; she practically wrote the book on how to do the whole star’s wife thing. Behind it all, though, she was Ronnie’s secret weapon, his rock, his ‘sapphire.’”
Born in Douglas, Georgia, Joyce Milsap met her husband when he was a student at Young Harris College and about to accept a full scholarship to law school. The story is told that, paying no heed to his blindness, she challenged him to a foot race, the irreverence of which delighted him. (He took her up on it, and legendarily ran into an open car door, but that was no damper on the beginning of their nearly six-decade relationship.
Ray Charles was an early supporter, as was Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, who also has a wife and confidante named Joyce. He remembered meeting the couple when Milsap, who was working the chitlin circuit in the ’60s, got added to what was supposed to be an all-Black bill in a Black theater. “I was standing out back when this little VW pulls up; they’re bringing Ronnie Milsap in and he’s blind and he’s white. This little thing gets out, and I don’t even think they had rooms. I asked how she was doing, and made friends with Joyce right there! They were on their honeymoon, and they hadn’t had anything to eat, trying to get to the show. There was a soul food restaurant across the street, and I sent somebody to get them some bologna and cheese, bread, enough so they were fixed up. From that day on, Ronnie and Joyce were family.” Many decades later, recalled Moore, “When he went into the Country Music Hall of Fame, it was Joyce who asked me if I would be part of it. I said, ‘Of course.’ … Joyce made every moment shine a little brighter, and she sure did that night, too.”
“He and Ronnie used to joke about their Joyces,” said Joyce Moore. “But Joyce Milsap was such a force, such a spirit and presence in her husband’s life and career. I was always honored to be considered one of the Joyces. … She was a driving force in a world where she made a massive difference.”
Charley Pride heard Milsap, who then lived in Memphis and played on sessions for Elvis Presley, and suggested a switch from R&B to country music, which Milsap undertook beginning with his first solo album in 1971. The couple moved to Nashville just after Christmas 1972. Speaking to the Augusta Chronicle, Ronnie credited Joyce with the fateful move. “She said, ‘No, no, what we’re going to do is go to Nashville and see how that works.’ She’s the one who said, ‘We’ve got to try Nashville or you never will be happy until we try it.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s go.’”
His string of No. 1s began with “Pure Love” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” in 1974, leading to hits that many who knew them associated with his love for Joyce, including “She Keeps The Home Fires Burning,” “Daydreams About Night Things,” “Smokey Mountain Rain,” “Show Her,” “Don’t You Know How Much I Love You,” “A Woman In Love” and “What A Difference You’ve Made in My Life.” Ultimately, with Joyce as an oft-credited song vetter, Milsap had a run of 40 No. 1 hits that ran into the ’90s.
Katy Cook dated their son, Todd, when they were teenagers. “I wasn’t sure she would accept me, but we quickly bonded. Joyce took me by the hand and drove me to Green Hills Mall in her sweet little Mercedes coupe to buy me my first real skin care … I felt so grown up and pretty, like Marilyn Monroe. She introduced me to the glamorous world of painted fingernails, perfume, rhinestones and glittery eyeshadow. … She was a dose of Hollywood in Nashville, and I was enamored.”
Services are pending.
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