Singer and Drummer
Ralston Brown was born in New Orleans in 1927 and moved to Oakland with his
parents at the age of seven. He first decided he wanted to be a drummer
when he saw Shelley Wilson twirling his sticks up on stage in a dance band
called Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy. His mother, a tailor, was a very
good piano player and fine singer who encouraged her son’s interest in music.
Ralston started playing in nightclubs while still a teen—-many of the
older musicians at that time were being drafted.
“My very first job was a top notch club,” Ralston recalls, “with a floor show,
singer, dancer, comedian, tap dancer—I was scared to death! My heart was
running—I’d never played a show in my life.” That first night was hard,
but Ralston persevered. “When I first started, most
of the musicians that I played with were old enough to be my father. And
they would take me into the back room and would say, ‘it goes like this kid, bup bup,’
and they’d tell me what they wanted me to do. And sometimes an older musician
would say well, if you’re going to learn, keep your ears open and your mouth shut.
That’s the way I learned. School of hard knocks.”
After a stint in the services during the war, Ralston returned to music.
Because of the musicians’ union and club contracts, he could make a
living playing throughout the Bay Area, though he also supplemented
his night gigs with day work in a number of trades. “I was,” he says,
“just a working musician.
Just like a 9 to 5 guy—you did it from 9 to 2 in the morning.”
Ralston played as far afield as Sweetwater, Texas, where he
and his band mates were stranded after their booking agent ran off with their money!
The Four Sharps in 1954
Ralston first started playing in Santa Cruz in 1953,
performing every summer in the Casbah, Mamboo Gardens,
The Top Hat, and other nightclubs that then lined Beach Street
across from the Boardwalk. “Kids would come in the daytime in their
bathing suits and dance and they’d go home and come back dressed up
and looking nice and we’d play at night for them. It was fun.”
He moved to Santa Cruz full time in 1970. Since then he’s performed
steadily in many popular jazz combos, appearing at such venues as
the Colonial Inn, C’se Bonne, Brookdale Lodge, Dream Inn, Pasatiempo Inn,
Peachwoods, Anatacio’s, Seascape, 2525 Main Street, and Severinos.
Ralston with the Amazing Jazz Geezers, 2003