N O   P A R T   O F   I T
Far more important than baking bread is the urge to take dough -beating to the extreme - Otto Muehl

Monday, September 13, 2021

Interview #31: Ralph Gean


Photo by Gregory Ego, 1990s Courtesy of RalphGean.com

When I started this interview series, Ralph was one of the first people I asked about.   It turned out that it would go back and forth between myself and Little Fyodor how best we could make this happen, being that Ralph Gean is not too keen on the internet.   I first saw Ralph in 2011 or so, and his performance was magical.  An analog film projector was dying as he was performing, and what was being projected seemed to be melted film for a lot of the time.  That gave Gean's performance an added strangeness, and an altogether epic feel, as if we were all part of an historical moment.  Even without that added effect, Ralph was  no less than captivating, just himself with an acoustic guitar.  Little Fyodor took me to have "fish n' chips" at a place in Denver when I was there (there were no potato chips involved, which boggled my midwestern mind).  Ralph described the affect that rock n' roll had on him when it first came out, and how it sort of obliterated what came before, and took everyone by surprise.  Thankfully, eventually, Little Fyodor was able to transcribe an interview from my questions, and so thanks go out to both Ralph Gean and Little Fyodor for making this happen!  -AZ

Hi, I’m Little Fyodor, friend of Ralph Gean. Ralph seemed to have quite a block when it came to answering Arvo’s questions in his own writing, procrastinating over it for years, but he’s a very chatty fellow, so when we started talking about it over the phone, I put him on speaker and started transcribing as quickly as I could! I’ve edited it since, but it still contains some of the original conversational qualities, and you know how conversations go, they’re not always linear, plus sometimes I missed stuff so the gaps in the train of thought may be mine and not always Ralph’s, but I did my best to get it all down, and you’ll see some of my own comments in the brackets to help out too, so anyway, here goes….

  1. What kinds of things have you been getting into lately?

Sometimes when I ride with my buddy I hear the J. Geils Band, they did Love Stinks! I really should sing Angel In the Centerfold cause I have a daughter named Angel, and she’s really beautiful, but all the kids would tease her about that song when she was growing up, about being the angel in the centerfold, and I can understand why they’d tease her. [I brought up Elvis because I know Ralph’s a big Elvis fan and likes to show off his original copy of “That’s All Right Mama” and watch an obscure Elvis biopic that he taped off TV years ago.] Elvis is still the unchallenged leader of rock ‘n’ roll and always will be. Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Ronnie Hawkins, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Bobby Knox, Ricky Nelson, these people all influenced me. It took me a little while to understand Elvis, but once I grasped it, I realized he was more consistent, more powerful. It took me a few years running into it. I put together a book about my encounters with all these other celebrities and how they played a part in making me do the kind of things I want to do. It has pictures of myself and all these celebri†ies, including the ones in Denver, Colorado like you [Little Fyodor] and Boyd [Rice] and Gregory Ego. I consider them all friends, some from a distance and some closer. You take Wyatt Erp, great lawman and gunfighter of the Old West. He was a great guy on his own, a well intended lawman, but he was a human being and had flaws. Wyatt Erp connected up and knew all the other gunfighters, it was like the six degrees they talk about. It’s like me connecting with so many people in the music business.

What you do, do you do it as an artist, or is it a hobby?  If you don't like that question, what do you have to say about true art (vs. "entertainment")?  

It’s not a hobby, it’s always been because I love the music. I’ve always tried to be as good an artist as I can, recording or performing, I tried to be the best I could be because of these other artists that inspired me but I just came into this world born loving music and with or without influence I would have loved music for what it is, but I think the inspiration by these other stars pushed me along and gave me a reason to pursue it.

How would you describe what you do?

Here’s what I think, I’m glad you asked me that question. The people down at the Lions Lair where we’ve played so many times, they react well to my music and get something out of it. Since I play the guitar solo and don’t have a band backing me up, and I’ve had bands in the past, Big Bang and the Boulders in the 1980’s, and Ralph Gean and His Blue Jeans in 1997 and 1998 with Kurt Ohlen. It was like Scotty and Bill [Scotty Moore and Bill Black backed up Elvis], only it was Kurt and this other guitar player, I can’t remember his name. There’s a picture of Ralph Gean and His Blue Jeans on the internet, the three of us playing shows. But at the Lions Lair I usually don’t play with bands, I do my songs and cover songs, I play the guitar backing myself up as if I’m hearing a whole band behind me, I’m playing the song as if there’s a band backing me up even though there is no band and I think that’s why people like it. There are people who get up and play their guitar and sing but they’re not playing with the gusto of a band backing them up, but I play with the gusto as if there’s a band backing me up and I think that’s why people like it, and maybe they like the songs, too.

How would you describe your creative progression over the years, in a brief synopsis?

I like to think there’s a progression to it. Starting out back in Texas the gold standard was to put out records. I played shows as a guest star or guest potential star with bands backing me up, though I didn’t have my own band. Back in 1968 I was in a big Broadway musical called Kiss Me Kate and I played a gangster and I was backed up by a forty piece band, a whole orchestra, singing a song called Brush Up Your Shakespeare. We did four shows in Rexburg, Idaho and then five shows in Salt Lake City at the Valley Music Hall and two more shows in Idaho Falls, Idaho. So that was different. And then I was a street performer for a year and a half, and that was different, too! That prepared me for playing the Lions Lair. In 1980, I had my pockets bulging with money, it kept me eatin’. And then I went to singing lead for Big Bang and the Boulders in Salt Lake City and the surrounding area, as far west as Elko, Nevada and as far east as Heber City, Utah. As far south as Spanish Fork. And all the way up north to Carter, Wyoming. There’s one place in Salt Lake I played about 70 times, backed up by bands. When that was over I got a six month hiatus and then I had a series of country bands. Big Bang was more hard rock country, very powerful. The country bands were a little looser, it was fun to do more of a country scene in ’84 to ’86. Then I moved to Denver in 1987. Just before I moved I got involved in a movie, they wanted me to write some killer songs, it was a comedy about a would-be killer who was too inept, he wants to be a killer, but it’s all in his mind, he can never pull it off, he’s too inept. It was to be called The Nuthouse. That’s why I wrote It’s Hard to Be a Killer and a few others. The whole thing fell through because of funding, they couldn’t raise the money they needed, this was a bunch of college kids who wanted to make their mark. But they really liked the songs, the killer songs! And when I played them for Shannon [Ezra Dickey, who managed Ralph for some years in Denver], I found they liked the killer songs!

How would you describe your philosophy?

[I mentioned that I knew Ralph to be a fundamentalist Mormon.] I have been a Mormon, but I’m not now. As far as the teachings, the gospel, I still believe in the plurality of wives when it’s God directed, but it has to be something that God is directing people to do to be involved in it, it’s something very sacred. I was involved in it in the 70’s but my family broke up due to complications from it. And that’s when I became a street singer, about 1980. But I still believe in the teachings, it’s just that I am not practicing them now like I was in the 70’s. But as far as philosophy goes, there’s six things in life that nobody has any control over. Getting older is inevitable, you can’t stop that from happening. Another thing is no matter how nice you are, some people will never like you. Life is not always fair and life is a constant struggle. You can’t change other people. Things are bound to change. That’s six things in life nobody can do anything about. I would call that a philosophy! But it’s pretty much true!

Do you believe in psychics, magic, ghosts, or gods?  If no, then maybe you'll share your favorite conspiracy theory (whether you believe it or not).  

I believe in God. I’ll just put that out. I believe He’s the Father of my spirit. And I believe He was also involved with my parents as far as creating my physical body. But the only begotten Son of God according to the Bible was Jesus, He was special, it was a virgin birth. Magic, I don’t know, if it’s done by men it’s probably trick stuff, and if it’s not trick stuff, well Satan has a lot of power, but God’s power is greater than Satan’s power. There is an evil power that comes from Satan, but God has greater power than that evil power. I believe in the Holy Ghost. My favorite conspiracy theory? That would be The Elvis Conspiracy, that Elvis is still alive. Colonel Parker told Elvis that if he ever got to the point where he’d had enough he should come and talk to him. And if anyone had a plan that Elvis could retire but not be bothered, I think that Colonel Parker would have been the one to figure that out. I think it’s probable that Elvis died, but I know that Colonel Parker had a plan and they may have carried it out.

What would you say was your most definitive experience?

There’s so many. When I was eight years old, the doctor said I had osteomyelitis, a crippling disease, I had a high fever, 103 or 104, both my legs were in pain, as a kid I couldn’t run or play and if anyone sat on the bed I would scream out in pain. The doctor wanted to bring back another doctor the next day to confirm what he thought. My mother had been talked to by the missionaries in the Mormon Church, and they told her that when someone was sick, if the missionaries would anoint the person with oil and say a prayer over them and ask God to heal the person from what was making them sick, God’s power is through the priesthood that He established. When Jesus Christ chose his 12 apostles, it says He said, I have chosen you and ordained you, and people know about the first part but don’t always know about the second part, but it meant He had given them the power of the priesthood. And so my mother called the missionaries and told them about me being sick and they laid their hands on me and anointed me with oil and said a prayer over me and then they said a second part of the prayer for me to be healed using the power of the priesthood like Jesus would have done. So they did that and in the middle of the night after they came, I woke up at something like two or three in the morning in a sweat and I discovered that I could move my legs and wasn’t in pain and so I called out to my parents and they came back to see what was going on and they could see that I was in a sweat meaning my fever had broken and I was able to move my legs and so I had been healed by the power of the priesthood. I believed that then and I believe that now. So when the doctor came back the next day with the consulting doctor, my parents were in disarray trying to figure out what to tell them. The doctor who had been taking care of me since I was a child was a Jewish doctor and they were afraid he wouldn’t believe them that I was healed by the power of the priesthood. The doctor said that had I not been healed I would have gotten an operation that would have crippled me for the rest of my life. But I was able to play like any other child. That was a very horrible [humbling? I’m not sure what Ralph said] experience. That was in 1951 when I was eight years old. That for me was a very defining experience. Musically I’ll tell you what else was defining. When I did that show back in Houston, TX at the Houston Coliseum, February 17, 1963. There were thousands of people. Weeping Willow Tree backed with Experimental Love, that was my first record I had ever released. It was in the process of coming out. I had been asked to play with the Jades backing me up and I opened the show for the big star of the day which of course was Roy Orbison. There were a lot of other stars there, Duane Eddy and the Rebels were there, the Beach Boys were there though I didn’t know a lot about them, Paul and Paula were there. We were practicing to back up Paul and Paula in case their band didn’t make it in time. There were people there like Tommy Roe, Bobby Dee, and Skeeter Davis who sang the End Of The World, there were country stars and rock stars, but Roy Orbison was the big star of the show. And I did my bit, and it wasn’t just opening the show that day, and I found out by going to the library every day [more recently] what the date was and I also realized that it wasn’t just the show that day, while looking at the information, I didn’t just open the show for him, I was opening a thirty city tour he was about to make. Maybe the other stars were going too, I don’t know. That makes it all the more special for me, that I was opening for his tour. After this was over with, Orbison was getting ready to go on last, and I was walking around backstage and I saw him standing by himself and I walked up to him and I introduced myself to him and told him I was a big fan of his, he had already had a number of hits and we talked for a while and while we were talking one of the guards asked us to leave the building because there was a bomb scare. So Roy Orbison and all the others went out the back door where they bring in all the equipment and the audience was cleared out of the front. Roy Orbison and I waited out in the back and it turned out to be a crank call, there was no bomb. Roy Orbison finally did his part of the show. My manager Charlie Booth already knew Roy Orbison and Orbison was waiting around after the show waiting for a ride to take him to the next stop on his tour. Charlie told me to wait right here by this railing, I’ll see if I can get Roy Orbison to hear some of your songs, which shook me up, I thought Roy Orbison is going to listen to me?? But Charlie did it, he rounded him up, and it was just the three of us. I took my guitar and I had written four rock songs, and I played Teenage Woman, Pretty Blonde, Electricity, Closer to Me [it was important to Ralph that he played them in that order]. Roy Orbison leaned back and listened closely and Roy Orbison said he had a lot of weird stuff in the can but he wasn’t in the market for rock songs but he’d keep them in mind. I didn’t know anything would come of it or anything. Over the years I pretty much forgot about it, but the second one, Oh Pretty Blonde, and Electricity is about meeting a girl out in the street. So the next year, during 1964, Roy Orbison comes out with Oh, Pretty Woman [Ralph sings the guitar changes to Electricity and Oh, Pretty Woman and I can hear the similarities]. Well the thing is I love Oh, Pretty Woman, and I’ll put it this way, I might have given him the idea for this great hit. Both songs are about meeting a girl out in the street, and if Orbison got the idea from me, and the words match up and the chords go like this [sings]. And maybe he couldn’t remember the chords of Electricity so he came up with something different. And I’m not trying to claim the song, I want to make that clear and Roy Orbison worked very hard on the song and he put his heart and soul into it, but I may have given him the idea. Years later Big Bang and the Boulders wanted me to sing Oh, Pretty Woman because Van Halen did it and I thought well I know it from Roy Orbison and then later the movie came out. And I never thought about it when I was doing it until I finally found out about the date in the library [which meant this Coliseum show happened before Oh, Pretty Woman came out]. And someone asked Roy Orbison why he decided to do a rock song and he said well somebody told me I needed a rock song. Maybe Charlie and I. That also has other significance, in March 11, 1963, United Record Distributing Company had my song Weeping Willow Tree on a list of best selling singles, next to people like the Drifters “On Broadway”, Fats Domino, Bo Diddly, Ricky Nelson, Mickey Gilley, who played piano on Weeping Willow Tree. All these people, a whole list of well known stars you’d recognize. They had my single pretty close up to the top. That was about a month after I did the Coliseum show. One more little thing about the show, I heard talk while I was around Orbison, he either had gone to Europe or was about to, I found out that starting May-something to June 9 that Orbison had gone over to Europe and guess who was working under him, the Beatles! I felt like I was caught between one of the founders of rock n roll and where the music was going. That’s why I’m saying it was a very meaningful experience to me musically. Number one, here’s the thing about the song and associating with someone who’s one of the stars that came out of Sun Records along with Johhnny Cash, and Elvis and Carl Perkins. And then Orbison went over and hooked up with the Beatles who were about to come over and storm America. Put all that together and that was a very meaningful time! I went through most of my life not realizing what had happened, until I found out [by piecing together the dates from what he read in the library].

Do you have any side projects that I am not aware of? If not, what is something you'd like people to know about you, that you don't think anyone would ever ask?

Music, the Old West, religion – and paleontology, the evolutionary story, I’ve been into that about as much as anything else I’ve been into. Right now just like everyone else I’m just trying to survive. I’ve gotten both of my Covid-19 shots and I’m just trying to stay healthy at age 79.

Would you care to name any theoretical "desert island" records, or at least releases that you think are approaching your concept of "perfect"?  

I like just about anything by Eddie Cochran, he had some really good rockers. Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochrane, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, they really influenced my guitar changes.

What is the earliest childhood memory you can (or are willing to) recall?   

Having an operation in the hospital, having my tonsils out, they covered my face with a green ether mask. Another memory was when my parents were working and they hired a black lady and she was trying to put me down for a nap and I didn’t want to take a nap and I was running through the hedges because I didn’t want to take a nap!

Are you able to appreciate other peoples' creative work regardless of their personal shortcomings or inherent flaws?  To what extent?  

Well yeah, I have to do that because we’re all human beings. Elvis may have been the greatest singer who ever lived, in fact he was the greatest singer, but he had his problems and his flaws as a human being, and I’m not going to turn against his music because he had some flaws in his life that caused him to take too many prescription drugs, and Bob Dylan may have done some things that I would not want to do myself, but I still like his music. I really do appreciate the creative work that other people do, I really appreciate this tribute album [Hard to Be A Killer: A Tribute to Ralph Gean, released in 2020 by Hypnotic Turtle Records] and people really put their heart and soul into it. And when I hear those songs I really appreciate how much they’re into it and I like them more every time I hear them. I really appreciate Arvo Zylo’s doing of Hey Doctor Casey and I want to thank him and if he ever comes over to Denver he’s invited to go get something to eat! After listening to it a number of times, I’ve become so accustomed to those great recordings that I miss them when I’m not listening to them. Everyone was so great on it. I think it’s so good it could be turned into a rock musical. Someone should come up with a script!

Do you have any heroes or heroines?  Who are they?  Feel free to add anything that makes them stand out.  

Just to make it very clear to anyone listening, I don’t have any heroin!! [Laughs!] I’d say the greatest hero that any of us have is our savior, Jesus Christ Himself, if He did what the Bible says He did, to save all mankind from eternal obliterations, that would make Him the greatest hero. I have a lot of musical heroes and a lot of heroes of the Old West, like Wild Bill Hickok who could kill someone in 18/100’s of a second, draw aim and shoot. While the other guy was standing there thinking about it, Wild Bill already had his gun out shooting him!

What would you like to have on your epitaph?  Or what is your favorite quote?  

I don’t know if I’ll be buried or cremated, I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about that. My favorite line from a song is, “If we never meet again this side of heaven, I’ll meet you on that beautiful shore.”

One more story as a footnote, relating to Elvis. Back in 1967 when my wife and I were a young couple we were babysitting some of my sister’s kids, I had been watching Elvis’s movies and I got this idea in my head to send a petition to Graceland and tell him what I think and make a couple of suggestions and get everyone to sign it, and what I told him to do was, he hadn’t come out with certain songs that hadn’t come out on an album yet, like Flaming Star, he needed to put that on an album. From the movie Viva Las Vegas there was Yellow Rose of Texas and the Eyes of Texas. I ended the petition saying what you oughtta do is you need to come out with a rocker that’ll knock their socks off and knock everybody dead, something that they’ve never heard you do before. Well I didn’t realize this until later, I think that suggestion got to Elvis cause on his album that came out in 1969 called Elvis sings Flaming Star and Others that had the Texas stuff, and the very last song on side two was his version that no one had ever heard before of Tiger Man. In 2000 I wrote the I’m Bad Tiger Man song, a different song that connects up with the Tiger Man thing. I got my sister to sign it, my wife, my sister’s kids, I got as many signatures as I could and lo and behold he came out with that album. I think I wasn’t in rock ‘n’ roll just to do music, I think I was also blessed to be in position to maybe have a little bit of influence. I mean I can’t prove it, I can’t prove everything I say is the way it is, but it feels like everything’s connected.

Thanks Ralph!

Little Fyodor