Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Groovy Reader of the Month: Ralph Lampkin

As a way to thank my readers for their support, I feature a new groovy guy or gal each month - and the winner of this prestigious title for October is my friend, Ralph Lampkin, of South Bend, Indiana, who has been producing, presenting and promoting musicians/performers for 30 years. Through Lampkin Music Group, some of the talented artists he has produced/presented include Alice Ripley, Donna McKechnie, Hinton Battle, Alexandra Billings, Linda Clifford, Spider Saloff, Tom Michael, Beckie Menzie, Martha Lorin and Karen Mason (to name just a few). Ralph was also a singer himself back in the 1970s and 80's, performing in both New York and Chicago clubs - and as a songwriter, he has received 19 ASCAP awards for his talents as a lyricist. Ralph is currently producing "Intimate Saturday Nights", a series of concerts at Chicago's Stage 773 Cabaret Room, featuring such artists as Heidi Ferris, Suzanne Palmer and Hollis Resnik.

I am delighted to have the "King of Chicago Cabaret" (as Ralph has deservedly been called) here on the Dish to answer a few questions about his career and, of course, pop culture.

How did you become involved in producing cabaret?
I was always around nightclubs growing up in New York because of my Dad's involvement with the legendary jazz club, Small's Paradise, in the 1970s, his disco club in Queens and others. I had become friends with Debye and Terry Burrell in the mid-70's (they appeared on Broadway in Comin' Uptown, The Wiz, Eubie! - but this was way prior to Dreamgirls). So, when Debye was making her nightclub debut at the Grand Finale, she asked if I had any ideas for good songs that weren't over-performed. That's how it began, helping others in their song choices.

I went on to assist a singer named Linn Lello, who used to sing at the Duplex all the time. She was great - part Melissa Manchester and Liza with a wonderful belt voice. We actually had a very good nightclub act put together. As a singer I worked with many songwriters, singing or song-plugging their material, including the late Jeanne Napoli and Doug Frank (Marilyn the Musical, Air Supply, Samantha Sang, Joey Travolta, Dionne Warwick, Cissy Houston), the Berardi Brothers (Jane Oliver, Village People in the 70's, and later the late David Gurland) and Shellen Lubin, a wonderful songwriter that I produced here in her Chicago debut this past April. So it was a natural transition to hook up my friends and new singers I met with these obscure and very interesting songs. Then I would sometimes design the lights, coach the act perhaps, hire the musicians, etc.

What was the first cabaret show you ever produced?
The first act I co-produced was the late great Pudgy from Chicago. It was at the New York nightclub, the Blue Angel. I would run the show - from the lights to the sound - and pay the musicians. This was over a time frame of 18 years or so.

Back in the late 70's in New York, you sang at the same club, Les Mouches, as two rising stars - Karen Mason and Patti LuPone. Do you have any interesting Karen or Patti stories that you can share with us?
I was the youngster there - and don't laugh - so very shy. So I didn't go and meet or force myself into someone else's space. Karen and I hadn't met just yet - that was later after this time frame. I also certainly didn't meet Ms. Lupone at that time. It was mobbed as I remember. I sang at the piano accompanied by Bobby Cole. It was mostly background for the hipsters arriving to go dancing at the disco or to see Karen or Patti. So sorry, no juicy stories.

What has been the most memorable and/or funniest moment that you have had while performing or producing cabaret over the years?
I'll share this one since I don't get to discuss my singing career much anymore. I was appearing at His-n-Her's back in September 1982 on Addison Avenue, where the train station entrance is now. It was my first time there. I was so nervous, young and scared because I had ventured out of my comfort level of New York and moved to Chicago with a gig that had ended, so I thought I'd stay and try the waters. I decided I'd start to sing from under the table next to the stage - a cappella. So I had the bartender turn down the radio and the lights, and I started singing "Pure Imagination" as my opener. The front table, which was the lesbian league of softball players who had just come to unwind and drink beers, quieted down and listened. I arose from behind the table in my sheer black see-through shirt and nylon pants (which I had wore to make sure people paid attention - I tried anything back then for acceptance) to find that these women had started clapping - clapping for me. My late friend Trevor was taking photos, and these women kept asking for more. After "Send in the Clowns" (yes, a jazz uptempo version), I thanked them for making me feel welcome on their night out and in their club of choice. It was a confidence builder - and very memorable to me for it was a new city. Funny thing, Trevor lost those picture negatives. So now when I get asked for performing photos, I have none. I do wish I had at least one to show.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Please learn how to promote yourself so that you alone can share your gifts with the world and understand what those gifts are - and how to market them to be successful - long before you are too old. If your heart soars when singing, it is what you are supposed to be doing with your life.

Photo Credit: Cynthia Howe

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
The Andrew Lloyd Webber LP by my dear friend, the late Laurie Beechman, Live at Carnegie Hall by Cleo Laine, the Carnegie Hall concert by Judy Garland, most of Johnny Mathis and, lastly, all of Barbra Streisand.

Five movies that I think everyone should be required to watch are:
The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby, the original Manchurian Candidate, A Star Is Born (with Judy Garland and James Mason) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

If I were asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
Robert Redford. He moved me so.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan (for what would be our second dinner together - so many questions left to ask her), and Martin Luther King.

What's next for Ralph Lampkin?
First and foremost to continue building up the new Cab Room at Stage 773 so that Chicago has another viable performance space; to continue work on the NY cabaret debut of singer/actor and native Chicagoan Charles West on November 16; to get my muse Alexandra Billings to Carnegie Hall soon, very soon; and finally to continue producing and nourishing performers who might need a song or two, a forum to appear at, a CD to represent their talents, a new nightclub act, and a new play or musical that I might enjoy producing for those writers/songwriters out there. To continue to assist performers in achieving their dreams. I have been blessed with a life with so many wonderful moments that could fill a book that all I want to do is continue to pass the passion on. There is nothing I could possibly do to take its place.

Thank you, Ralph, for being one of my grooviest readers! You can follow him on Twitter, and for more information on Lampkin Music Group, visit www.lampkinmusic.com. For tickets to the "Intimate Saturday Nights" concert series at Chicago's Stage 773 Cabaret Room, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252 or click here to purchase tickets online.


  1. Thanks so much Marc. I am thrilled to still be called groovy at this age. Say hi to MP and see you soon for lunch. XO. RL

  2. Thank you, Ralph, for being such a groovy DEEP DISH supporter and friend! :)

  3. Wow! I've known Ralph for more than 30 years and didn't know half this stuff!!! Cool!

    I about choked on my coffee when I was his picture while thinking, "Hey!!! I know this guy!!!"

    Great article!!!

  4. Thanks, Doug, glad you liked my profile on our mutual friend.