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Rambling Thoughts About Ralph Sutton

Dr. H. S. Pruett, M.D. was renowned for his enormous collection of rare jazz 78's --- if you liked early jazz in those days you had to collect 78 rpm originals because reissues were virtually nonexistent on 78 or LP. Doc "Shucks" Pruett settled in St. Louis after pitching for the St. Louis Browns in the early 30's - a career that included striking out Babe Ruth on several occasions. He also liked to drop into the conversation that he had a relationship with Mae West (or was it Jean Harlow?) Any Condonites visiting St. Louis would stay at his mansion where the liquor was freer than the room. Doc was hard to keep up with in that department unless he had an operation the next day.

Ralph Sutton, born in Hamburg, Missouri, near St.Louis, had moved out of the area in the 40's but was still a major presence on the St.Louis jazz scene when I moved there in 1951. He had just finished a run at the Barrel on Delmar Blvd. with Albert Nicholas and Art Trappier and returned often in the 50's for solo gigs at other venues including one memorable visit to the Delmar / deBalivere jazz club area with Edmund Hall on clarinet and Buzzy Drootin on drums.

It was at Doc's that I met Ralph and became acquainted with his sister Barbara who also played impressive piano. She had been in the legendary band that kicked off the trad jazz revival in St. Louis in the late 40's with sessions sponsored by John Galbraith at the DeSota Hotel, the Golden Rod Showboat, and the Universal Dance Studios at 5671 Delmar (my business address years later, see page 16) in a band consisting of Norman Murphy, tp; Sid Dawson, tb; Norman Mason or Al Guicard, cl; Barbara, p; Singleton Palmer, b; Rick O'Connor or Lige Shaw, dms. This led quickly to the formation of the Singleton Palmer Dixieland Six as well as the non-profit St. Louis Jazz Club and I might as well toss in my own music business career. John Galbraith later invested in Delmark's first recording activity and I'm not proud of how long it took for him to get his money back.

But back to Ralph. He played for several years starting during the war with Jack Teagarden (when he wasn't in the armed forces), joined banjoist-guitarist Joe Shirmer's Trio in 1945 (including some 16" transcriptions and some local radio studio work), then left in `48 for more than a decade at Eddie Condon's as intermission pianist or featured keyboard on some of the Decca sessions, one of which included his solo on "Maple Leaf Rag" which began a wide interest in ragtime for the first time since the 19-teens -- the tune became a must in every trad pianist's repertoire (and the most played Joplin composition, until The Sting revived "The Entertainer").
Ralph was heard regularly with the This Is Jazz All Stars, Rudi Blesh's wonderful Blue net show with Davison, Hall, Nicholas, Brunies, Baby Dodds, Pops Foster et al., and recorded the final 10" LP for Blesh's Circle label. (These performances are now available on Jazzology CD's.) He had also recorded for Commodore and Columbia.

Perpetually touring at jazz festivals in more recent years, Sutton recorded for most of the trad labels (Arbors, Stomp Off, Jazzology, etc.) but is perhaps best remembered for the duets on Chazz Jazz (which seems to have been set up primarily to record Ralph) and Chiaroscuro with Jay McShann.

But the most widely heard Sutton performances were with the World's Greatest Jazz Band, which earned the superlative, at least in trad circles of its time, by including Yank Lawson, Eddie Miller, Bud Freeman, Bob Haggart, et al on numerous LP's on Atlantic, Command, World Jazz.
The Sutton album that does it for me is the Jazz At The Olympics record on OmegaDisc, which seems to have marked Sutton's move from Hastings-On-Hudson, NY to the Denver area, probably occasioned by the legendary jazz parties held there every year.
Ralph Sutton dined in early January with his wife at a restaurant in Evergreen, Colorado, got in his car, and died of stroke. Another man done gone. - Bob Koester