Pianist Ralph Sutton Helps a Friend in Need

In the music business, it is easy to focus on the negative: problematic gigs, cancellations, difficulty getting paid and of course the ever-present “Musical Politics.” Sometimes, thinking about good experiences in music can help compensate for the bad.

Today I was cheered up by remembering two instances of great kindness rendered to me by the wonderful pianist Ralph Sutton

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Around 1970, after previous exposure to the stride piano recordings of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, I heard a record by Ralph Sutton—and instantly became a fan! His recordings from the 1940s and 1950s were not always easy to find, but I managed to track down most of them. In 1972, he was touring with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band and was scheduled to appear with them at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. My parents realized how much I admired Ralph Sutton’s music, so they took me to hear the WGJB at the Century Plaza. At intermission—before I realized how valuable breaks are to a musician—I introduced myself to Ralph and requested a stride piano feature. While there are some hair-raising stories concerning Ralph Sutton’s reaction to intrusive fans, on this occasion he was courteous and pleasant. Whether or not he played a feature, I felt honored that he took the time to talk with me.

Pianist Ralph Sutton
Pianist Ralph Sutton

When the band returned from intermission, an announcement was made that Ralph Sutton would be featured on the opening number! After a brief piano introduction, he took off on a version of “California, Here I Come” that nearly melted the keyboard! I was thrilled by this virtuoso stride performance, as well as the fact that this great pianist was kind enough to play my request.

Fast-forward to 1976…I was playing with the Ev Farey and Lueder Ohlwein band which operated under a variety of names. (When the band was hired for one night, to fill in for Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band at Earthquake McGoon’s in San Francisco, we were the “Bay City Six”). The thought of playing at McGoon’s with Ev, Lueder, Bob Mielke, Mike Baird and Mike Fay was already delightful, but the intermission music that night was to be provided by RALPH SUTTON!

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The night we were to play at McGoon’s, it was pouring rain; about as hard as it could possibly rain in San Francisco. I pulled my car into the loading zone in front of the club and for reasons I don’t understand to this day, promptly ran afoul of one of San Francisco’s finest. I had pulled out the last drum case from the car when the gendarme told me to move my car immediately. I pleaded with him to at least allow me to take the drums inside, out of the rain. In response, he reached for his ticket book. There was no other choice except moving the car to a parking place on the street a few blocks away.

Walking back to the club, soaked to the bone, I envisioned drum cases which had been ruined by the pounding rain and possible permanent damage to the contents. Or what if a passerby just decided to help themselves to the unattended drums? The latter became a real possibility when I reached McGoon’s front door and the cases were gone! With a sinking feeling, I opened the door and walked into the club, spotting Bob Mielke and the drum cases simultaneously. With enormous relief, I asked Bob what happened. He replied, “Ralph brought them in.”

Ralph Sutton may or may not have remembered me from the Century Plaza, but I will always be thankful for what he did to help a fellow musician on a rainy night in San Francisco. He was a great musician AND a great person!

Hal Smith is an Arkansas-based drummer and writer. He leads the Jazzologists and the
Mortonia Seven and works with a variety of jazz and swing bands. Visit him online at
halsmithmusic.com

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