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RALPH BUTLER,
KEEPING THE DREAM ALIVE



By Christine Imbs

Ask Ralph Butler the secret to his success and he laughs and says, “I’m a ham.”

Perhaps. But as the frontman for the Ralph Butler Band, he also genuinely likes people—and the feeling’s mutual. He’s been called “Public Entertainer Number One,” and his musical performances are like family reunions. He interacts with audience members like they are old friends—and most are.

“I see a lot of the same faces coming to my concerts year after year,” he says. “A lot of them I’ve known for 30 years just because they keep showing up.”

They show up because Butler makes them feel a part of the action. It’s what sets him apart from the others. “A lot of people can get up on stage and sing a song perfectly,” he says. “But if they just play the song and don’t interact with the audience, what’s it all about?”

On stage, the vocalist and his band cover a variety of artists, from Bob Marley and Bobby Darin, to Bette Midler. The show is a combination of jazz, reggae and pop—and anything else to set the mood for what he calls “lively, loving atmospheres.”

For Butler, it’s all about having fun doing something he loves to do. “And all right, I admit it,” he says, laughing. “I enjoy the attention too.”

And he’s good at getting it. Take for example the night he had 75 little kids climb up on stage with him to help with a song. “The hard part’s not getting them to come on stage. It’s getting them off,” he says. “They really get into it. It can be a bit daunting.”

There was a time when Butler’s performance was a bit more reserve. He says a rather enthusiastic musician friend of his, Jeff Meyer, took care of that.

“I was singing Smokey (Robinson) stuff. You know, real sweet and pretty. And I was worried about messing up my voice,” he explains. “Jeff just said, ‘Man, you gotta sing!’ And he’d get up on stage and just jump all around like he didn’t give a damn. He really helped me with my show.”

Butler began singing with groups back in grade school as a way to gain some popularity, especially with the girls. By the time he reached high school, he was singing with a band led by Jay Berry. Berry was a big draw at the local teen towns.

“Playing with Berry was what really got me into music,” Butler explains. “He had us learn two top ten hits a week. I learned a lot from him. We called it ‘The Jay Berry School of Rock.’”

Butler sang with Berry from about 1968 to 1970. He bounced around after that singing in a variety of bands. He decided to start the Ralph Butler Band after club owners began reneging on payment. “If a member left they’d say ‘I’m not going to pay you. This isn’t the same group I hired.’ So I put my name on a group. This way no matter who leaves, I’m still here,” Butler says.

And band members do eventually move on. It’s a fact of life Butler accepts, but not easily. “One of my favorite analogies is music is like art. Eventually everyone wants to paint their own picture. And I don’t blame them,” he comments. “But it’s broken my heart.”

Butler says he would like to someday have a contract with a major record label. Unfortunately they want to categorize him and that’s simply not Butler. “I like different types of music and don’t want to be pigeon-holed,” he says.

This may have hurt him with the record companies, but Butler isn’t discouraged. He continues to write music and has produced his own CD, You Know My Heart. “Naturally I’d still like to be on a label and get a little more fame and fortune,” he says. “But I make a decent living here in town. And I still dream. It’s never too late.”

TALKING POINTS

RALPH BUTLER

BORN/RAISED: 1951; Kinloch.

FAMILY: Two daughters, Jessica (31) and Brianna (20).

FAVORITE PLACE IN ST. LOUIS: Central West End.

FAVORITE BOOK: Tao of Pooh.

FAVORITE SONG: Johnny Clegg’s “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World.”

FAVORITE MUSICIAN: “At one time Stevie Wonder. Now it’s hard to say.”

BEST THING ABOUT ST. LOUIS: “It’s a good place to raise a family and live.”

ACTIVITIES/HOBBIES: Fishing, working outdoors.

MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSON IN LIFE: “My parents. They never pushed me in any certain direction and told me I could be whatever I wanted to be.”
 
 

 

 


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