Heart failure claims life of Ronnie Hammond, former ARS lead singer

jkovac@macon.comMarch 15, 2011 

Ronnie Hammond, the former lead singer of the Atlanta Rhythm Section, died Monday in Forsyth. He was 60.

The Macon native died of heart failure about 11 a.m., said his brother, Jimmy Hammond.

Hammond, whose powerful, balladeer’s voice helped vault ARS to prominence, joined the band in 1972 after lead vocalist Rodney Justo left the group. ARS had several hits during the 1970s, including “Doraville,” “Jukin,” “Champagne Jam,” “Imaginary Lover,” “So Into You,” “I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight,” and a remake of the Classics IV hit “Spooky.”

“I know he’d want to be remembered for some of his accomplishments in music,” Jimmy Hammond said. “Ronnie is one of the most gentle, kindest, humble people you could ever run across. That’s just the way he was. He was a good person, and he was deeply loved by his family and friends, ... and I know he’s got fans all over the world that still listen to his music and are inspired by it.”

The grandson of a piano tuner, Ronnie Hammond, one of three Hammond brothers, a sister and a stepbrother, grew up in west and south Macon in the 1950s and ’60s. He is survived by his wife, Tracy, and a son, Jesse.

“Ronnie was so humble. He didn’t talk about his music much. He just wouldn’t brag. He kind of took it all in stride,” Jimmy Hammond, 67, his oldest sibling, said. “He told me the first time he realized that they had really made it to the top was at the first Champagne Jam in Atlanta (in 1978) when it was sold out. He said he realized at that moment that all his dreams had come true.”

That year, then-President Jimmy Carter invited the band to the White House to play an on-the-lawn concert for his son’s birthday party.

“They said it was awe-inspiring to be on that stage and look over there to the right and see the White House,” Jimmy Hammond said. “I believe their picture was in Time magazine that week.”

Burt Gordon, a longtime friend, said he had talked to Ronnie Hammond recently and that Hammond told him he hadn’t been feeling well, that he thought he might be coming down with a cold.

“He just had a heart of gold,” Gordon said. “I’d called him last week and we talked about how life just pulls us in different corners (and) how short life is.”

When they talked, Hammond told him, “The Lord has blessed me in so many ways. I’ve still got the good Lord, and I’ve still got my family and friends.”

Kevin Dockrell, another longtime friend, remembered an ARS gig in Natchez, Miss., in 1999 when Hammond was singing a line from the song “When”: The line goes, “I’ve got friends I can count on.” As he sang, he patted himself over the heart and looked straight at Dockrell.

“He cared about people, and he cared about the right things,” Dockrell said. “I miss him already.”

Hammond left ARS in the early 1980s before rejoining the group in 1987. During his years off the road, he continued to write music, with songwriting partner and producer Buddy Buie. Hammond, who was also a carpenter, built houses around Macon, including his own near Lake Tobesofkee.

In recent years he had lived in Forsyth.

Staff writer Oby Brown contributed to this article. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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