Ralph Otis Fisher

The versatile drummer performed at clubs throughout the city and did studio work with pop artists during his long career

January 01, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Ralph Otis Fisher, a versatile drummer who performed at jazz clubs and did studio work with 1970s pop artists, died of cancer Saturday at his Randallstown home. He was 61.

Over the past five decades, he played rhythm and blues, jazz and gospel at numerous clubs and private parties and was one of Baltimore's best-known drummers.

"He had the right timing. He had the right touch. He had the right feel," said singer Ethel Ennis. "Speaking as a vocalist, he was a take-care-of-you drummer."

Born and raised in Frederick, he first showed an interest in percussion when, as a child, he would hammer out musical rhythms on his family's kitchen chairs. After he wore out their upholstery, his father bought his 5-year-old a set of drums. He played in the school band at Linganore High School.

Family members said his first professional job was playing at the Gist Club in Libertytown at 16. A year later he moved to Baltimore and performed at the Sphinx Club, Club Casino and New Albert Hall in the then-flourishing Pennsylvania Avenue music scene.

"He performed flawlessly and was one of the most highly sought-after and highly respected drummers to come out of Baltimore," said E. Scott Johnson, chair of the Maryland State Arts Council.

When African-American stars came to Baltimore and sang at the Royal Theatre or at Carr's Beach near Annapolis, Mr. Fisher played alongside and often performed with opening acts.

"He was a natural talent and very serious about his music. He wanted everything to be right," said Nevitta Ruddy, a friend and keyboard player. "If someone else wasn't playing properly, he'd stop the music."

Family members said he moved to Los Angeles for a while many years ago and did studio work with Earth, Wind and Fire and the Temptations, often supplying his brand of funk to practice sessions. He also toured with Wilson Pickett and Luther Ingram.

"Ralph was known throughout the music world as a gifted drummer, and to see him live was to be treated to an explosive show," said his sister, Shirley L. Jackson of Randallstown. "He was versatile enough to play any music genre, but jazz, R&B, funk, blues and gospel were his favorite musical entities."

In Baltimore, he played at the New Haven Lounge, the Park Plaza, the Caton Castle, Mimi Junior's, the 32nd Street Plaza and Duffy's Lounge.

He also recorded with the poet Wanda Robinson on two albums on the Perception label in the early 1970s and was a member of Cruel Shoes, a group led by John Palumbo that released a CD in 1992. He was also a member of Scott Cunningham's Band in the late 1970s.

"Like many of the noted local musicians, he could be found regularly at the Sportsman's Lounge, where there was a jam session Monday nights," said his sister.

Mr. Fisher also drove a Cloverland Dairy truck to help support himself. Relatives said he was an excellent cook.

"He was an unpretentious fellow and a very pleasant man," said writer Earl Arnett, who knew him for many years.

Family members said that Mr. Fisher was a "very spiritual person" and played drums for a church band at Bible Manor Church with his longtime friend Julius Brockington. At the time of his death, he was working on a gospel CD, a project he did not finish.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Vaughn C. Greene Funeral Home, 8728 Liberty Road in Randallstown.

In addition to his sister, survivors include his wife, the former Phyllis Hoggard; two sons, Ralph Fisher Jr. of Greencastle, Pa., and Damon Fisher of Randallstown; two daughters, Dena Fisher of Berkeley, Calif., and Keisha Winkler of Los Angeles; a brother, Charles Fisher Jr. of Randallstown; and nine grandchildren.

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