Percussive Arts Society

In Memoriam: Ralph Humphrey

Ralph HumphreyDrummer Ralph Humphrey, known for his playing with the Don Ellis Big Band and Frank Zappa, died on April 25, 2023. 

Born in Berkeley, Cal. In 1944, Humphrey played clarinet in Dixieland bands in his early teens. He switched to drums at age 15 and studied percussion at the college of San Mateo and San Jose State College. After graduating, he toured and recorded with Don Ellis from 1968–73, and also earned a master’s degree in percussion performance from California State College, Northridge.

Humphrey played on the soundtracks of the films The French Connection and Kansas City Bomber, and then toured and recorded with Frank Zappa from 1973–74.

Ralph then became very active in the recording studios, playing for a variety of motion picture, TV, and record projects, including the shows Americian Idol, American Jrs., The Emmys, Star Trek Enterprise, The Simpsons, Charmed, Family Guy, American Dad, and others. He recorded and/or toured with such artists Wayne Shorter, Al Jarreau, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lou Tabakin, Manhattan Transfer, Natalie Cole, Free Flight, Pete Christlieb, Joe Farrell, Tierney Sutton, Alphonso Johnson, Milcho Leviev, Alan Pasqua, Seals and Crofts, Barbra Streisand, Jose Feliciano, Bette Midler, Captain and Tenille, Richard Carpenter, Rita Coolidge, and others.

From 1980 to 1996, Humphrey and Joe Porcaro directed and wrote the curriculum for the Percussion Institute of Technology (PIT) within the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. He and Porcaro then started the Los Angeles Music Academy (LAMA).

Ralph wrote a method book titled Even in the Odds, published by Barnhouse, which dealt with playing in unusual meters. He also contributed articles to Modern Drummer, Percussive Notes, and Musician magazines.

“I have so many amazing memories of hanging out with the great Ralph Humphrey,” recalls Gregg Bissonette. “Growing up in Detroit, I saw him play with the Don Ellis Orchestra, incorporating complex rhythms into big band music. Before I met him, I listened to Ralph play on records with Frank Zappa and the remarkable singer Al Jarreau. I even got to play double drums with Ralph at Musicians Institute! Another special memory was hanging out with him, Joe Porcaro, my dad [Bud Bissonette] and Don Lombardi at the Drum Channel. I would see Ralph at drumming events and conventions, and he always lifted me up and made me feel great. He taught me a lot about odd time signatures and had an amazing book called Even in the Odds. Ralph Humphrey was an incredible game-changing drummer, a great educator, and a great friend.”

Ruth Komanoff Underwood met Ralph in early 1973 at a rehearsal space for Frank Zappa’s new iteration of the Mothers of Invention. “From that day on, we were officially in the trenches, inhabiting the music in an everchanging landscape,” Ruth said. “I was taken by Ralph’s soft-spoken manner, which was polite but welcoming. Soon we were off and running, excitedly sharing thoughts about hand positions and grips, sticks and mallets, where and with whom we’d studied, and how in the world we’d arrived in this particular place in our lives! We each sensed an ally in the other, and by the end of the tour, we had forged a friendship.

Underwood continues, “Throughout his career — the live performances, studio recordings, method books, videos, drum-solo compositions, teaching — Ralph eschewed the usual trappings of success, and maintained his customary integrity and humility. He was an outstanding leader and soloist, with the sensibility of an ensemble player. He never flashed his superpowers, though he had many: flawless technique, stylistic versatility, laser focus, adaptability, eagerness to learn, calm temperament, dedication to his students, and professionalism at all times. His keen ear and obsession with tuning his drums helped make him one of the best sounding drummers on record.”

Ruth pauses with emotion before adding, “Ralph faced his illness with his trademark strength of character, enduring the treatment and coping with the eventual outcome. When we talked just days ago, he summed up what he had learned during this arduous yet revelatory process. In a supreme act of generosity, he tried to reassure and prepare me for the day when it’s my turn. After fifty years of friendship, I will treasure that lesson the most, beyond his drum set, and even beyond the music.”

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