When Ronald Bills jumped into the music world, he made waves.
Well, Ripples & Waves.
Former Gary resident Bills, the lead tenor of soul act Ripples & Waves, died Aug. 4 in his Minneapolis, Minn., home. He was 55.
“Everybody has problems in life and things like that, but when we went out on stage and we'd practice, it was a different thing,” bandmate Elvy Woodard said. “He gave his heart on stage.”
Bills started as the 13-year-old lead singer of Ripples & Waves, which featured students from Gary's Beckman, Emerson, West Side and Mann schools. They recorded one album on the Gary-based Steeltown Records label, where a young Michael Jackson also got his start.
“Ronald was second only to Michael. That's how good he was,” said Steeltown owner Gordon Keith, 73, of Gary.
With songs like “Let Me Carry Your School Books” and “I Never Had a Girl,” the group gigged around Northwest Indiana starting in the late 1960s.
Bills joined in 1970 and stayed until the group broke up in 1986.
Band members would come and go, but Bills, Woodard and Roy Moore, who joined in 1972, made up the group's core.
“It was us three that kept the group alive,” said Woodard, 57, of Chicago. “We did shows with the Spinners, with the Stylistics and with James Brown. We just never got that record deal.”
They started as Ripples & Waves and then became Ripples & Waves plus Michael, with a boy named Michael Rodgers replacing Bills after Bills' voice changed.
When the band recorded their one record, their style was so similar to Steeltown's Jackson 5 that record collector forums online are still filled with rumors and arguments that the two bands were the same. At least one Jackson 5 collection mistakenly included “School Books” and “Never Had a Girl” as early Jacksons.
Ripples & Waves weren't the Jackson 5, but they were just as good, said Keith, who is Woodard's uncle.
Rodgers left after six months, leaving the now-tenor Bills back as lead vocals, Woodard said.
Bills, a 1975 Emerson High School graduate, went on to serve in the National Guard, according to his obituary. He went to Lakeland Academy, where he graduated as a medical coder.
He is survived by his wife, Stephanie Bills; sons Damien, Ronald, Excell and Peyton Bills; two granddaughters; four sisters; a brother and many nieces, nephews, cousins, family and friends.
And by his music.