Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Five



Ralph Humphrey ~ virtuoso drummer

While not a familiar name among the general public, drummer Ralph Humphrey is famous among musicians. He’s known for playing with a long list of musical luminaries and just about every kind of gig and recording session imaginable. But when I played a few casuals with Ralph in 1975 and 1976, for me, his crowning glory was that he’d played with Frank Zappa, most notably as the only drummer on the 1973 Zappa album “Over-nite Sensation.”



Ralph’s playing on “Over-nite Sensation” introduced a different kind of rhythmic sophistication to Zappa’s rock and jazz hybrid tunes, creating a sound of raw power precisely executed. Every musician I knew was listening to that breakthrough album.

The first gig I played with Ralph was at The Bistro in Beverly Hills, famous for its celebrity patrons. We played for a City Of Hope dinner for luminaries honored by the medical center’s foundation. I quickly realized I was in rarified air when I saw the parking lot. It was wall-to-wall Rolls Royce automobiles.



On our first break, I peppered Ralph with questions about Zappa. I especially wanted to know if Zappa was sincere when he so often publicly stated he did not use drugs. His appearance and his wild musical mind, not to mention his bizarre lyrics, often gave people the impression that he must be high on something. But Ralph confirmed that Zappa did not use drugs. He was, in fact, an anti-drug advocate, although he did smoke cigarettes.


“I think if Frank ever really got high and took a good look at himself it would really freak him out,” Ralph said.

{The above quote is approximate, from my imperfect memory.}

I was a competent guitar player, but far from the A-list level that Humphrey belonged to. I asked Ralph how he rose to such a high level of musical proficiency. If there was some secret bit of wisdom, some path to greatness I’d overlooked, he would know about it. But Ralph said his musicianship was simply a result of a lot of study, practice and dedication. I suppose he was too modest to mention talent.

Check out his superb musicianship on the recently released "Roxy ~ The Movie," a CD and video compilation of Zappa performing over four nights in Hollywood at the Roxy in 1973. I was there—in the audience!

Click Here for "Roxy ~ The Movie" at Amazon

That evening led to another encounter with a famous celebrity--Johnny Carson. Someone said the lounge at The Bistro was a favorite spot for Johnny and Jack Lemmon who would meet there on occasion. A few hours after our gig began, we heard that Johnny was in the bar.

To get to the restroom, bar patrons had to cut across a corner of the banquet room where we were playing. In the middle of a tune, we spotted Johnny making his way to the restroom. Without dropping a beat, the piano player broke into the theme song from “The Tonight Show.” Johnny looked over, pointed at us and laughed, quickly disappearing from the room.

~ to be continued



~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Ralph Humphrey bio
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