Ralph Carney has left this mortal coil far too soon. He was one of us, a musician from Akron who made it out and had become a much-beloved multi-instrumentalist where ever he hung his hat. (The last two years in Portland, OR.) Carney was also the uncle of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. He added his brilliance to acts like Tom Waits, The B-52s, Elvis Costello, Kronos Quartet, Jonathan Richman, St. Vincent... basically any band worth their salt that needed some brilliant reed component, whether clarinet or saxophone or some other homemade instrument!
He had lived in NYC for a spell after leaving Akron and his initial brush with success with one of Akron's coolest bands Tin Huey, a band that the legendary Jerry Wexler signed. Their 1979 album Contents Dislodged During Shipment (Warner Brothers) is not to be missed. This Akron band boasted an incredible lineup that also including my musical mentor Harvey Gold, future Waitresses founder Chris Butler, Mark Price, Michael Aylward, Stuart Austin, and Ralph. Ralph could play any reed instrument. In fact, when I use to see Tin Huey gig around town I was astounded that he could play two reed instruments at once. Take that, Rahsaan Roland Kirk! I'd never seen a bass saxophone before Ralph wrangled one on stage. Nor had I witnessed anyone playing an instrument that large with such proficiency! It was a mind-blowing moment for a young music fanatic who was just starting to make his way around jazz and avant grade music.
But that was Ralph, he could play homemade instruments, trombone, pocket trumpet, bass clarinet, etc. It was no wonder that Tom Waits hired him and he became a core member of his band during his critically-lauded Island Records era that included Rain Dogs/Big Time/Frank's Wild Years. Check him out shredding on his clarinet above on Waits' Rain Dogs live! He provided the bass sax part that became the keyboard hook for St. Vincent’s 2014 single, "Digital Witness." (Carney’s sax was sampled for the keyboard riff on this track.) I can't go on... suffice to say, Ralph was an inspiration to anyone who added his magical madcap melodies to their music. And that's no snub to own original music as well.
I hope that his family and friends find solace in knowing that Ralph made the world a better place. Just by his sheer joy of sharing and creating music. By being Ralph.
Mr. Wright is a content creator and cultural curator. He was a contributor to the Huffington Post, former DJ at David Lynch's Transcendental Music Radio, the former editor of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and television. He's also a singer-songwriter who recently released his sixth album Caterwauling Towards the Light.