The Pianist: Ralph Sutton

Pianist Ralph Sutton was a mainstay of the West Texas Jazz party.

Sutton, a Missouri native and Fats Waller descendant, was living in California at the time of his first visit to Odessa, and had also begun to appear at the Dick Gibson Colorado Jazz parties beginning in the early 1960s in Denver. He first came to West Texas with a small group in 1964, if not earlier. Sunnie Sutton suggests it might have been before the article on this page appeared in the Odessa American.

Sutton-Feld-Holley-Hall-2000w-1964One of the pianists to play the first Odessa Jazz Party in 1967, Ralph Sutton has the distinction of asking his wife Sunnie to marry him in Doctor Fulcher’s kitchen in Odessa the year before they married in 1965 – probably when he was in Odessa to play at the Golden Rooster in 1964 with clarinetist Edmond Hall, Bassist Major Holley, and drummer Morey Feld.

Ralph had a direct line to most of the famous “piano ticklers” in history, having worked around them or some of their sidemen. He substituted for men such as Willie “The Lion” Smith and was often complemented for his ability to interpret Fat Waller and James P. Johnson. He was a friend of pianist Johnny Varro from the time Varro was in his teens. He may have been the first to introduce Varro to strong liquor, as a newly found member of the piano fraternity.

Loose-Shoes-Detail-webIn his biography of Ralph Sutton entitled Loose Shoes, the story of Ralph Sutton, the author James D. Shacter quotes Benny Goodman pianist Jess Stacy about Ralph: “He is a superb piano player and a great guy…He’s one of the greats, and I hope he gets the recognition he deserves.” Shacter also quoted Teddy Wilson saying of Ralph, “He’s the only jazz pianist I know who plays the whole history of jazz — ragtime, Bix, Fats, Willie the Lion, James P., and on up to the present. He’s a complete musician — even plays Chopin, Brahms and Bach beautifully.”

In addition to his serving eight years as the intermission pianist at Eddie Condons, Ralph also worked in groups with or accompanied Albert Nicolas, Edmond Hall, Jack Teagarden, Wild Bill Davison, Bobby Hackett, Billy Butterfield, Jimmy McPartland, Bob Wilber, Lee Wiley, Maxine Sullivan, Bud Freeman, Jack Lesberg and Jimmy Dorsey, among others.

Sutton-Lesberg-Hanrattys-webAt jazz parties in Colorado, Odessa, Midland and elsewhere, Ralph played with Teddy Wilson, Lou Stein, Dick Wellstood, Dave McKenna, Dick Hyman, Paul Smith and a host of others. Pianist Johnny Varro, who had known Ralph since he was a teenager, was also a favorite dual piano partner. One of his final recordings was made with fellow jazz party pianist Johnny Varro in January 2000.

Ralph made hundreds of recordings with legendary musicians including Sidney Bechet, Bunk Johnson, Lee Collins and many of the performers already mentioned. He is best known for his solo albums, and perhaps for the recordings he made with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, an offshoot of the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band formed originally in the early 1950s.

Cover-ForeverSunnie-covermodRalph Sutton played the first jazz party in 1967, and last played the jazz party in 2000. He missed the Odessa Jazz Party at least once in 1977, but played in virtually all the rest. He also played a number of times at the Midland Jazz Classic.

Ralph’s widow Sunnie still holds vivid memories of the early Odessa parties, the attendees and the kindnesss of Doctor O.A. “Jimmie” Fulcher.

SunnieRalph88In 2016, Sunnie Sutton and Bucky Pizzarelli are two of the last links to this prestigious Odessa Jazz Party in its heyday. Sunnie recalls all of the musicians spending their days around the pool at the Inn of the Golden West, and their nights playing music and traveling to after-parties in Odessa and Midland.