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Musical Backstory: Ruthie Ristich

Earliest memories: listening to Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky on my parent's very precious stereo component system in Patchogue, Long Island. We were elegantly attired ballet dancers as we listened and glided around the living room behind closed doors - entranced by the music and mom's long dresses from her younger single woman days.

I had a friend in 2nd grade named Lin Stanionis who had a small beautifully lacquered musical jewelry box in her bedroom. When you opened the lid a tiny ballerina twirled in front of 3 mirrors while a lilting hauntingly beautiful melody played. Years later I would recognize it as Beethoven's Fur Elise (for Elise).

Summertime meant visiting my very cool teenaged cousin Hubert in New Hampshire. He wore his blonde hair in a high pompadour with a DA down the nape of his neck, combed with a flair and the flat of his hand. His bedroom was decorated with posters and the covers of 45rpm records--of early rock n roll stars whom I had never seen nor heard: Elvis Presley, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker and the biggest dreamboat of them all - Ricky Nelson. Hubert and his girlfriend would take us to get ice cream in his convertible Thunderbird - with the radio blaring Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini or Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera . At the age of 6 I had no clue what singer those voices belonged to. But the car, my cousin, his glamorous girlfriend, the sky, the ice cream, and the music just went into my ear and stayed there. Definitely not our suburban-Long-Island-with-my-parents-and-4-siblings kind of experience.

When I was in third grade we moved to central New Jersey - Exit 9. A month later President Kennedy was assassinated.

We all withstood our father's weekend wake-up ritual: playing opera full blast on Saturday mornings. There were chores to be done! Nothing like Figaro or Violetta to get you up and at 'em. I almost hate to admit it because it seems so very super corny now, but my parents watched The Mitch Miller Show and The Lawrence Welk Show every Saturday night. I loved the guy with the accordion...and the Lennon Sisters and King Sisters. My dad even bought the record " Sing Along with Mitch" . That must be where I learned the song Funiculi, Funicula. The sensory memories that are stimulated by even hearing a song's title mentioned: the room, the time of day, who else was there, what you were wearing, what you were seeing.

Early theater memories were seeing Peter Pan, and The King and I at McCarter Theater in Princeton, and the Rockettes Holiday extravaganza at Radio City with Mom. She'd give us each a few coins for our special dinner at Horn & Hardart's Automat. Saw Man of La Mancha for a school trip to Broadway. I still get a thrill when the lights go down. The theater was a mystical place where fantasy, magic, music, and creativity all merged together while the outside world disappeared. We had a few soundtrack LPs at home...Hair, West Side Story, Man of LaMancha. We'd sing along and play-act the shows in the backyard or the living room.

My parents were active in the civil rights movement so we had albums by Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, plus Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte. The summer after the Freedom Riders helped with voter registration in the south, my parents helped organized a youth exchange visit with a busload of black teens and young adults from Meridien, Mississippi. Ben and Barbara Chaney, the brother and sister of slain CORE volunteer James Chaney stayed at our house. That summer we were listening to Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes, Mary Wells, the Esquires, Sam Cooke - and learning how to dance the Funky Broadway to Wilson Pickett's hit of the same name. Everyone was singing folk songs, freedom songs, or soul songs.

I gave my first solo performance in fifth grade at a school talent show singing a Yiddish song about freedom (in English) that I learned from a Joan Baez record: Dona, Dona. I was the last person on the program so I never knew if all the applause was for me, or for the end of the show!

Overnight girl scout camp was all about vocal harmonies sung around a campfire or before meals. How could voices together sound so exquisite? I didn't know, but there it was. I would sing in choruses every year in school, and later in college, too.

Adolescence was filled with all kinds of popular music: the Doors, Jose Feliciano's version of Light My Fire, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Marvin Gaye, Blood Sweat & Tears, Cream, Johnny Mathis, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Nina Simone, CSN&Y, Blind Faith, Spencer Davis, Dave Mason, James Brown, Santana, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Vanilla Fudge, The Ultimate Spinach, The Moody Blues, Canned Heat, Asleep at the Wheel, Jesse Colin Young, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, The Incredible String Band, Traffic, etc etc etc. We could tune in WNEW 102.7FM from New York and listen to Alison Steele the Night Bird, Scott Muni and Jonathan Schwartz spin alternative music. Took the train into Penn Station for my first rock concert at Madison Square Garden and heard Cream's farewell concert - Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. British rocker Terry Reid and the Buddy Miles Express were also on the bill. I was in ninth grade...Wow. Also went to my first jazz festival the following summer at Rutgers University. Heard Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Blood Sweat and Tears and Jethro Tull! Still didn't know much about jazz .

After attending an alternative high school in Boulder Colorado and the Penland School of Crafts to study weaving I ended up living in Greensboro North Carolina. My new friend and roommate was born and raised in Chicago with parents who listened to jazz, blues, and vocal groups. That was IT. I was hooked and could not get enough of listening to Miles, Cannonball, Billie Holiday, Ella, Carmen McRae, Freddie Hubbard, Mose Allison, Lambert Hendrix and Ross, Basie, Ellington, The Double Six of Paris, the Hi-Lo's, The Singers Unlimited, Earth Wind and Fire's first album, Donald Byrd, Ken Nordine, The King Singers, Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau, Bill Evans, Jimmy Rowles, Gabor Szabo, Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles, the Neville Brothers, the Meters, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, and so much more...Airto and Flora Purim, Luiz Bonfa, Milton Nascimento, Jobim... I will be forever indebted to Mandy Latham Boublitz and her dear parents, now departed, Richard and Mary Ann Latham.

When I left North Carolina to go to school in Santa Rosa, California I decided to study music. I knew I loved it, but knew nothing except what singing in choruses and taking piano lessons for a few years had taught me. My sightreading was such that I could only get into the big chorus (they turned no one away). But that changed with the challenge of wanting to get better, no doubt one of the positive sides of competition. I studied classical technique with Marvel Gardner, Dr. Curtis Sprenger and Dr. Val Hicks. California had a strong arts' initiative for years before I arrived, so the students my age had excellent musical skills, honed from years of strong programming in the public schools. They were a big inspiration and the vocal ensembles sounded like professional groups. Artists like Carmen McRae and Joe Williams came to give concerts, then presented clinics in our small classes. I went on to join the concert choir, chamber singers, madrigal singers, a barbershop quartet, the jazz choir, plus a vocal trio, and the Northern California Chamber Chorale. We performed works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Vivaldi, Ned Rorem, Hildor Lundvik, Bach, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Palestrina, Benjamin Britten (one of my favorites), Manhattan Transfer, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Thelonius Monk, and so many more.

There was a lot going on in San Francisco so I went to see musicians Bill Evans, Marty Morell, Eddie Gomez, Sir Roland Hanna, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Ben Riley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ray Brown, Elvin Jones, Anita O'Day, Art Lande, Jules Brussard, Elvin Bishop, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock with VSOP and many others. Since I knew no one when I first moved there I'd just take the bus ride 50+ miles to the city and then catch the last bus back north to Sonoma County.

Berklee College in Boston was the next move: as a vocal performance major. I studied with Brian O'Connell, Tom Martin, Maggie Scott, Joyce Lucia, and then classical technique privately for 4 years with Marilyn Evans in Brookline. Other teachers were Bill Pierce, Pablo Landrum, Alex Ulanowsky, Larry Monroe, John LaPorta, John Neves, Bob Patton, Tony Germain, Jack Lowther, Steve Prosser, Scott Free, George Monseur, Rob Rose, Phil Wilson, Tom Plsek, Dick Lowell. I was able to perform all the time, including 4 or 5 concerts under my own name with vocal group quartets and quintets, plus bands that included 4-6 horns and 4-5 rhythm section players in the Berklee Performance Center. I worked alongside musical directors Terry Wollman, Teese Gohl, Jeff Halpern, and Alex Ulanowsky. Arrangers included Teese Gohl, Paul Dioguardi, Jeff Halpern, Randy Crenshaw, Bill Lyons, Barrie Nettles, Alex Ulanowsky, and myself. Composers included Elyse Wilson, Teese Gohl and I wrote lyrics to a few pieces.

Two of these shows were chosen for the Jazz Beat from Berklee series. One was broadcast nationally through NPR affiliates. WGBH produced the series with Music America host Ron della Chiesa as the interviewer. I was able to have the performance center for two sets so the shows were quite elaborate with choreography and specific lighting. For one concert we even scented the programs! Lee and Susan Berk always attended as did Mike and Cilla Gibbs when Mike was composer in residence. We had a lot of fun but we worked hard rehearsing and preparing while still keeping up with a full academic schedule. Since I didn't have a car for the first 5 years I lived in Brookline I was often able to catch rides home with Larry Monroe, the Performance Department chair. He MC'ed all the concerts back then and just happened to live a few blocks away from me with his wife Rita and son Josh. I was performing with too many groups and bands to mention here...but let's just say it was total immersion.

One of the more memorable choral concerts was under the direction of Lithuanian composer in residence Jeronimas Kachinskas. He composed a piece about his homeland, in conjunction with Steve Prosser. It debuted at a Lithuanian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, in Lithuanian to the most passionate audience I have ever performed for...as the music was all about the beauty of their homeland, which had been occupied by the Soviets. Mr. Kachinskas was lucky to get out with his life. I was heartened to hear the newly elected democratic leader of the newly independent Lithuania on the radio just last night.

I started working professionally in the Boston area around 1979. My first band was an acoustic trio: Terry Wollman on guitar, Danny Lavictoire on bass and myself on vocals. We performed all over including opening for the legendary Sabby Lewis band at Lulu White's in the South End. Our steady gig was at the Winery down at Lewis Wharf so a few years. We also performed for a group of elderly men at a nursing home in Jamaica Plain called the Duplex. Terry's friend and neighbor David B. Greenberger was the activities director. The men reviewed our concert in David's publication called The Duplex Planet (see the reviews page). Clubs, parties, some concerts - whatever we could find. Opened for blues singer Linda Hopkins down at one of the smaller theaters near the Shubert, with Bob Winter, Alan Dawson, and Whit Browne backing me up. What a thrill. Started singing at the Colonnade with Alex Ulanowsky, John Lockwood, and Alan Dawson which I figured must be heaven, or darn close to it. Singer, pianist and arranger extraordinaire Jeff Halpern and I also put together a vocal-duet cabaret act. Jeff was the mastermind while I worked hard on his brilliantly challenging vocal arrangements. We performed in clubs and concert halls, once opening for the comedian Henny Youngman. He arranged background vocals for 3 or 4 originals we recorded out at Blue Jay. Jan Stevens (Prostick), Elyse Wilson, and Terry Wollman all wrote original compositions for that project. I also recorded three standards in a duo setting with Alex Ulanowsky: My Romance, You Took Advantage of Me and Dindi. Lyman Underwood was my biggest fan and financial supporter for these projects.

I heard a trombone coming out of the 1369 Club one chilly fall Wednesday evening as I walked down the street - in 1980 or 1981. Turned out to be Gary Valente's big sound playing with D. Sharpe's band. D.'s girlfriend Nancy was taking money at the door and being the friendly person she was I was soon introduced to D. since he didn't have a P.A. system and I did. So, every Wednesday night D. Sharpe and Bill Frisell or D. and Wayne Krantz or someone else in the band would come over to my 4th floor walkup above the liquor store in Inman Square to borrow the P.A. Of course I then ended up singing two poem/songs with the band that D. had written since he was so generous of spirit in that way. John Lockwood played bass with D., Gary and either Frisell or Wayne or later with Tony Pearson on guitar. D. turned me on to his Korean yoga and taoist teacher Dr. Lee, who was then teaching in Coolidge Corner. We'd go to class together a few times a week. D. was a beautiful human being who passed away much too soon at age 40.

Since then I have been lucky to continue learning more about music, the business, different genres, and always there is more and more and more to learn and know. Nothing takes the place of experiential learning. You have got to get out there and do it. Whatever IT is. Being a bandleader and arranger is a painstaking behind-the-scenes job, but the rewards are many and multipled once you bring the music to the other musicians. I've been lucky to work with some of the most creative players in the business. They include the musicians on this new CD as well as so many others I've intersected with along the way: Terry Wollman, Brat Hatfield, Elyse Wilson, Cheryl Hodge, Marcia Guntzel-Feldman, Jonatha Brooke, Olga Roman, Dominique Eade, Daniela Tosic, Gaye Tolan-Hatfield, Roberta Radley, Kris Adams, Mili Bermejo, Randy Crenshaw, Bill Lyons, Catherine Russell, Ed Randol, Makoto Ozone, John Medeski, Bob Moses, Bob Harsen, D. Sharpe, Jun Saito, Grover Mooney, Greg Badolato, George Garzone, Dick Johnson, Jimmy Mosher, Bob Hores, Bill Pierce, Stan Strickland, Greg Hopkins, Ken Cervenka, Herb Pomeroy, Mike Metheny, Gary Valente, Alan Dawson, Randy Roos, Bill Brinkley, Jerry Bussiere, Gray Sargaent, Reeves Gabrels, Malcolm Granger, Jon Wheatley, Wayne Krantz, Bill Frisell, Lazlo Gardony, Bruce Katz, Marty Ballou, Dick Johnson's Swing Shift, The Ritz-Carlton Orchestra led by Dave Burdett, the Boston Swing Sextet, the White Heat Swing Orchestra, the Mike Metheny Group, David Clark, Jim Stinnet, Danny Morris, John Lockwood, Mike Rivard, Tim Landers, Baron Browne, Chulo Gatewood, Tommy Campbell, Steve Olenick, Tim Ray, Dave Kikoski, Rachel Nicolazzo, Alizon Lissance, and so many more. Many of these musicians performed with me at rooms such as Turner Fisheries at the Westin Hotel, or The Ritz-Carlton, or during the two years I had a steady gig at Ryles Jazz Club in Inman Square Cambridge, or at the lounge at the Lafayette Hotel or the Boston Harbor Hotel, the Bay Tower Room, or Kenmore Square's Skylight Room...

Gigs and concerts have taken me to Italy, Yugoslavia, California, Idaho, Key West, Maine and many places in between. There have been TV and radio appearances both here and in Europe as well as performances in festivals, schools, parks, nursing homes, and then the odd jobs. I was once hired to demonstrate kareoke software in the aisle of a computer store (I hung garlic around my neck to protect myself). I was shocked to find out the REAL WORDS to Led Zeppelin's song Dazed and Confused. More recently I did a studio session to become the voice of a talking baby doll. After saying 20 different phrases in my sweetest little girl's voice I then did the same for 1,065 girls names. The computer chip implanted in the doll can be programmed to insert the name of choice into the sentences.

I have taught voice for the past 20 years both privately and as adjunct faculty member at Boston Conservatory. Feels good learning as much from my students as I also pass on to them. A recent master's degree in film studies from Harvard will turn into projects that merge moving images with music. Stay tuned and look to the Video page for details about past and future projects including my award winning whimsical short "i change"; a music video I produced, directed and edited for the vocal group Tapestry; and other goodies.

This will get (even) longer as I feel like adding on.... There are lots of little stories to tell. Lots and lots. About the time Peter Yarrow (from Peter Paul and Mary) sat in with my band, the night Jaco Pastorius came into the club where I was singing; the nights I sang nose to nose with Hermeto Pascoal at the Tasty in Harvard Square; the time I got to help choreograph some dance steps for a video Pat and Mike Metheny were making for their parents; the day that Makoto Ozone found out he was joining Gary Burton's band; the day I met Carly Simon on the beach; the night in 1980 when I met a relatively unknown singer named Bobby McFerrin who was working with Jon Hendricks at Lulu White's in the South End; the night Alain Mallet's amp died at one of Lee Fernandez's wonderfully wild parties so he played accordion and my mini-keyed synth all night; then there was the night Michael Palin and I took a boat taxi across the Grand Canal in Venice for a dinner at the Gritti Hotel following my performance at the Stuart Davis opening at Peggy Guggenheim's museum; and the night I fell down some algae covered steps into the Grand Canal; etc etc. etc. So many stories, so little time to tell them all. What are your stories?

Continue reading Musical Backstory: Ruthie Ristich.



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