Ralph Rolle is a drummer from The Bronx New York (Bronx River Projects). As far back as he can remember he’s always marched to the beat of a different drum. He has been playing professionally since the age of 18 and it is no surprise that with more than 4 decades of professional experience within the music industry, he enjoys an illustrious career as a much sought after drummer and producer.
His performance and recording list include Nile Rodgers and Chic (for which he is best known), Sting, Bono, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, LL Cool J, Erykah Badu, Roger Daltrey, John Legend, Paul Simon, India Arie, Elvis Costello, Smokey Robinson, NAS, Biggie Smalls, Slash and many more. He also appeared in the Lady Gaga David Bowie Tribute in the 58th Annual Grammy Awards.
Voted second best Live Session Drummer by Rhythm Magazine, Ralph has also performed on the soundtrack of the Elton John biopic, Rocketman.
RALPH ROLLE – THE INTERVIEW
THE J: How have the past 18 months been for you?
RALPH ROLLE: We just did our first show since March 2020!
THE J: And how did it go?
RALPH ROLLE: It was good! The band have a really great relationship. There was a lot of anticipation up to this point but we jumped right back into it. The main reason is we talk all the time on WhatsApp so we’ve been in constant conversation.
THE J: Have you had an anxieties with returning?
RALPH ROLLE: Not really no. I’ve been lucky and had a good time at home. I haven’t stayed at home like this in 14 years so I’ve been lucky to be able to spend some quality time with my wife and daughter. It was a good time being together. Me and my wife have always had a strong relationship but it made us even stronger.
I think for my daughter it was really tough, just being stuck in the house at that age. We did our best to make her comfortable. She’s a special young lady.
THE J: Does she drum?
RALPH ROLLE: I taught her drums – she has incredible freakin’ rhythm! But I would never push somebody, she has to choose it herself. I gave her drums, violins, anything she wanted. I’m very proud of her. She has been accepted at every University she applied to and she’s a good, good person. She is studying Nursing.
A MAN OF MANY TALENTS
THE J: So how do you manage being a drummer in one of the world’s biggest bands Chic whilst simultaneously running The Soul Snacks kitchen?
RALPH ROLLE: Well it’s me and my wife. We have found a very workable and synergistic relationship. We like working with each other but we like being with each other. Usually my wife takes care of the kitchen and I take a managerial role but recently my wife was walking our dog – he’s a really big dog – and she fell! Punctured a lung and ended up in the hospital for 4 days. And so I had to jump in! This is after we both had COVID-19!
THE J: Oh no! How are you both now?
RALPH ROLLE: It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that! It was very frightening. I’ve had pneumonia, and it was worse than that. My wife coughed from March to October.
THE BIG FEASTIVAL
THE J: Are you excited for The Big Feastival? It’s the perfect mix of music and food for you!?
RALPH ROLLE: Yeah! It will be a lot of fun, I’ll be talking about baking and how I make the cookies. But whilst the cookies are in the oven, I’ll move to the drums and play some music! And I like to get the audience involved for a final showpiece – it’s a lot of fun and people will love it!
THE J: We can’t wait! Was it your Grandmother who taught you to bake?
RALPH ROLLE: Yes, my Grandmother lived with my Aunt so when I would visit, me and my cousin Vincent would sit in the kitchen – because we knew the cake bowl was coming! And like most people, the thing I can remember is the smell of the kitchen!
Most of my childhood memories are of the kitchen! I was the youngest of four. I was a pretty strange kid growing up because I gravitated towards cooking. Baking was my thing. I was a nerdy, shy kid, did well in school. I got skipped a year. But the baking and cooking thing, I was around the women in my family more than the men of the family. But growing up shy, I would bake. If it was somebody’s birthday, I would bake a cake.
Then when I would meet a girl, I would bake. I stayed with the baking because it was fun, it tasted good and the girls liked it!
A LIFE IN MUSIC
THE J: So where does the music fit in? If you were always in the kitchen, was that with the radio on?
RALPH ROLLE: Let me tell you some secrets… It was my brother who was into music! I started playing drums when my brother brought a drum set home when I was 9. But he was tinkerer – he would fix things. So he’d find a stereo and re-wire it. He’d have it wired throughout the house – and my Mother would go berserk! He’s a retired engineer now. If you go to his house, it is totally wired up for music around the house.
“WHEN IT WAS TIME TO BAKE IT WAS TIME TO BAKE!”
RALPH CONTINUES: But honestly with me, when it was time to play music I’d play music, but when it was time to bake it was time to bake.
THE J: So is that a concentration thing?
RALPH ROLLE: I have a recording studio in my home and there were moments where I needed a break from recording. I told everyone I was going to go and bake and people were puzzled… But when I came back and they tasted the cookies – they demanded I make them every time!
THE J: Do you allow any music in the kitchen?
RALPH ROLLE: No, I don’t! But there is music in the eating area of the restaurant – I have a playlist that plays for 13 hours! I have been to restaurants where you hear the same songs repeated within an hour of being in there, so I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen at Soul Snacks!
THE BEST COOKIES
THE J: Do you have a pre-gig meal?
RALPH ROLLE: No there’s nothing standard because wherever we go there is a caterer. I’ll tell you this – if there are cookies I’ll try them, especially if they are homemade! Some of the best I’ve ever had were at the Four Seasons in Australia. They were amazing.
THE J: Being so multi-talented – do you play sports too?
RALPH ROLLE: I used to play a lot basketball at high school. I was trying to make proper decisions – like I said I was a weird kid – and they asked me to play at Junior Varsity but I turned it down. Because I knew it wasn’t going to be my career. I was too short. I did have a killer jump shot, but that’s it, the end. Nothing else. When I go to Japan [my wife is Japanese], I like to watch Sumo Wrestling!
THE J: We love Japan!
RALPH ROLLE: You have to go! We used to have a restaurant in Tokyo. Unfortunately, it has closed now but we had great experience out there. Japan has good food, it’s a clean environment where people treat you nice.
THE J: I have to ask… Is your real surname ROLLE? You are a drummer AND a baker… That is incredible!
RALPH ROLLE: I come from a long line of Rolles. There is an island called Exuma. There is a place on that island called Rolleville. The slave owner that owned that part of Exuma was called Rolle and was a “good person” and when he died the island went to the slaves. On the island it is a common name. I have an uncle who is 96 named Ralph Rolle. I have a cousin a year younger than me who also has a son called Ralph!
AUDITIONING FOR NILE RODGERS & CHIC
THE J: So how did you end up in Chic. Do you remember the audition process?
RALPH ROLLE: I’d always wanted to join Chic. The first time I heard Chic I was at the roller derby and this song Le Freak came on – as soon as it came on, the floor was packed! I remember asking somebody “What is this song?” and they said “Man, that’s Freak Out! You don’t know this song?!” I started listening Chic from then on…
LE FREAK – CHIC (C’EST CHIC – 1978)
RALPH CONTINUES: A few years later I was asked to do a gig for a charity event and Nile was the honouree. We had to play a lot of the Chic songs – and I made sure he would hear me! But I don’t think he paid me any attention at all! I felt like the jilted high school girl…
A few years later I was at a play at my daughter’s school and my phone vibrated. It was the drummer Nathaniel Townsley – he said “Listen I’m playing with Chic but I can’t do the gig” and immediately I said “yes” – I didn’t even check the diary. So I went and listened to all the songs. I always listen to the live and recorded versions and then I write out my own charts as I’m lucky enough to be able to write music – which has helped a lot to be able to do that.
“SEE YOU IN SWITZERLAND”
We had one get together as Nile wanted to hear me. It was me and bass player all set up at the studio. Nile walks in, very friendly and says “well, let’s take the medley?” So I turn my page, we start playing the medley and then somewhere halfway through he stops playing. He says “OK”, packs up and goes to leave. Immediately I thought I had done something wrong so I ask “Excuse me Nile, was everything OK?” and he says “Yeah, you sounded great – I’ll see you in Switzerland.” And that was it.
My first gig was at Gstaad in 2006. It was one of the greatest gigs of my life. We got to the end of the show I was asked – “Do you want the gig?” I said “But it’s Nathaniel’s gig?” – I really didn’t want to steal someone else’s gig they said “Not really, they were just looking for someone. Nile wants you to do the gig.” So that’s how I ended up in Chic.
At the time I was working at The Apollo and coincided with my relationship with the director deteriorating. I was asked to do the Democratic convention for Barack Obama and I said no – because I was lined to to do the gig with Nile. But that’s what ended that relationship. And it was such a sense of emancipation and freedom. I stayed on at The Apollo for 2 years but when it ended it was absolutely the best thing that could have happened. I was miserable, it felt like the life was being sucked out of music. It wasn’t fun.
RALPH CONTINUES: But Nile is such a nice guy. He really is, and I have worked with a lot of people.
THE J: We’ve seen the list!
RALPH ROLLE: 95% of the list are good people!
THE J: You know I have to ask about the 5%…?
RALPH ROLLE: The most difficult was a member of the Motown family. I did 2 of the David Gest tours in the UK with her. They told me to put on a seatbelt before she came onto the stage. And they were right!
But to be honest, when we were on the bus I was like a fly on the wall listening in on the conversations to hear the stories. And based on their truth you can hear the psychological beat down they have had working in the industry and the experiences they had gone through. And you have to respect that.
I said “Yes Ma’am” to her every time because my Mother would slap me if I didn’t. I wish I could make a movie from my times hearing those stories. They were legends and it was a privilege to hear their truth.
Chic is a whole other family extension. What you see on stage is not paid for. That is truth, what you get. Jerry Barnes and I are brothers, as close to it. Kimberly is like a little sister I never had, Folami as well.
Ralph is currently working on the One World One Kitchen project and producing his own
song, with a host of other artists participating, both initiatives will raise funds and increase awareness of the Eugene Gasana Jr Foundation, which will build a children’s hospital in Ghana
RALPH RALPH: I have always wanted to give back. When I was working at The Apollo Theatre, to have the prestigious drum chair for 17 years, people would come in and I would teach them for free. I would never ask for a dime. Young kids who would come in and see me, somebody who looked like them, and that was so important. For that experience, subliminally to see people working in a number of roles from engineers to lighting to stage management they were able to see what was possible. To be inspired and mentored. And I wanted to do more of this, I was teaching classes around the world.
THE J: We a class you did at at Abbey Road…?
RALPH ROLLE: Yes I was invited by Jerry. We did it together which was very cool. But I got all of this teaching and giving back thing from my Mother. She was attendant patrol, running the summer youth program and the crossing guard on the corner. Up until the day she died! She was in hospital with cancer still doing neighbourhood proposals! But I wanted to get more into charity work.
“AS COMPARED TO WHAT?”
RALPH CONTINUES: Lately, I’ve been working with the Eugene Gasana Jr Foundation – for kids with cancer. Talking with the doctor within 10 minutes of talking I was weeping listening to her experiences with patients. I call her a rock star. But she has put together a global team to build hospitals. The first in Ghana and I’m involved through my cookies – to help feed people around the world.
And I have suggested we do a charity song! The video has people from around the world dancing to the music and it’s a real cool thing. We will start editing it soon.
When talking to her I kept thinking “As Compared To What?” and the reason was I was thinking that the problems I have in my every day life do not compare to people who do not have running water, or a pharmacy down the street. I know this pandemic has been crazy but “as compared to what?” She told me how these children with cancer have died from complications because they haven’t had access to basic medicines and we need to help in any way we can.