"When he would get going on something like 'Honky Tonk Train' he would have people leaping out of their seats," recalled clarinet legend Kenny Davern of stride pianist Ralph Sutton. Sutton was a great 'two-handed' piano player following in the footsteps of Harlem stride giants James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie 'the Lion' Smith.
With his knack for improvisation and a left hand that packed a wallop, stride piano genius Ralph Sutton built a career spanning half a century and taking him to the world's great jazz spots. Chancing upon a radio broadcast on station WIL in St. Louis, Ralph Sutton's life was changed when he was nine years old and heard Fats Waller perform for the first time. The year was 1931.
Sutton's career took off in 1941 when he began playing with Jack Teagarden while still a college student. He later worked in a trio with Albert Nicholas and was the intermission pianist at Eddie Condon's Greenwich Village club for eight years. Sutton worked with Bob Scobey for a time, then was featured in 1963 at the first Dick Gibson Jazz Party in Colorado. Five years later that would lead to the formation of the World's Greatest Jazzband of which he was a founding member.
Thereafter Sutton's star rose. He recorded a series of albums and toured the world solo and in a variety of settings. His musical partners included Ruby Braff, Milt Hinton, Jay McShann, Kenny Davern and Peanuts Hucko.
On TV Ralph appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, the Steve Allen Show and the Today Show. He appeared at The Town Hall and the 92nd Street Y in New York, the Boston Symphony Hall and the Hollywood Bowl in LA.
He recorded for Arbors, RCA Victor, Columbia, Verve, Decca and Commodore among others. In 1993 Ralph was inducted into the New Jersey Jazz Hall of Fame.
Ralph Sutton died in Evergreen, CO on December 30, 2001 at the age of 79.
In an encore presentation this week Riverwalk Jazz presents Ralph Sutton's visit to The Landing in San Antonio with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in 2000.
Between tunes Sutton talked with host David Holt about his early experiences and influences and how he came to join Jack Teagarden's band. Longtime Jim Cullum Jazz Band pianist John Sheridan shares a story about an afternoon lesson with Sutton in San Antonio. Ralph Sutton performs rarely heard stride piano repertoire including Fats Waller's "Clothesline Ballet" and familiar pieces such as "Love Lies" and "Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid."
Fellow Musicians Remember Ralph Sutton
"He always plays the right things behind me, and he's just sensational as a soloist." —Peanuts Hucko
"He's a complete musician—even plays Chopin, Brahms, and Bach beautifully." —Teddy Wilson
"I'm glad to have passed through this life—just to have met Ralph Sutton." —Milt Hinton
"It's easy to hear why he had such an impact on musicians and critics alike. In addition to strength, accuracy and swing, his playing possessed a naturalness and sense of inevitability that marked him as a star from the first. And then of course there was his 'Fatsness.'" —Dick Wellstood
Photo credit for Home Page: One of Ralph's favorite photos, with Milt Hinton. Photo by Al White.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2012