Ralph Rolle: Legendary Chic drummer on achieving his dreams, honouring his musical legacy and playing for Nile Rodgers
Renowned musician Ralph Rolle has performed on stages around the world.
The Bronx-born drummer, who took musical inspiration from his older siblings and Drum Corps teachers in his youth, has enjoyed four decades as a celebrated musician, vocalist and producer.
He’s now played with Chic for twelve years and enjoyed a 17-year stint in the Apollo Theatre’s house band. He’s worked with Sting, Prince, Erykah Badu, John Legend and Aretha Franklin to name a few, and performed on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
During an appearance at Kingston University last month, Ralph recalled how he first heard Chic at a roller-disco in the 70s.
He said: “When Le Freak came on, I had never heard it, but the rink floor lit up with energy, just totally lit up with energy. And I’m like ‘what is this song?’ It was called Le Freak and the group was called Chic.
“The more their music came out, the more I learned about them and I’m like ‘this group is so hot I really want to play with them!’”
But it wasn’t until twelve years ago, when Ralph received a call in the middle of his daughter’s school play, that the opportunity arose.
Ralph said: “Nile came to a super short rehearsal. It lasted all of about two and half songs. He stopped playing, packed up his guitar and said ‘okay I’m leaving.’ I thought I did a really bad job, and he said to me ‘no you sound great! I’ll see you Switzerland’. That was it, I saw him in Switzerland.”
Ralph practised extensively for the show and after that first gig became a mainstay in the band.
He added: “I really wanted to play with Chic, so when I had a chance to actually to do it, there was no way in the world I was going to sound second rate.
“I gave Nile everything I had, every piece of passion, nuance and collective energy I could possibly give.”
This year, Nile Rodgers & Chic’s Glastonbury performance was nominated for the BBC’s Live Performance of the Year Award, and is a moment Rolle remains proud of.
He said: “I look up, it’s an absolutely beautiful day and the audience just disappear over the hill-side. Usually when I play, I am so happy to be on stage with the band, I’m connecting with the audience, it smiles all round, there’s no nervousness ever.
“But when I looked at that audience, I had to keep my composure. As soon as we started playing, everything was fine. It was one the best performances Chic has ever done. Everything was perfect. The weather, the audience, the band, everything was on one hundred that day.”
Ralph grew up in a single parent household, and spoke admiringly about his mother and three siblings.
When his elder sister, Yvette, asked their mother if she could go to the Apollo, their mother made her take Ralph. That way, Yvette would have to watch her little brother and stay out of trouble. At the Apollo, they saw the Jackson 5 perform ‘I Want You Back’ before the record was released.
Rolle recalled: “When Michael grabbed the microphone he tore the Apollo down. People were amazed this little kid, who at the time was the same age as me, was tearing the stage up. I just saw the light. I could be on that stage at the Apollo Theatre. I’m the same age as this guy.”
And 25 years later, Ralph achieved his childhood dream.
He said: “When I walked on that stage I literally started tearing up, because I couldn’t believe I was on the stage that James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys knight, Charlie Parker performed on.
“And, it was where I saw this great kid perform in the Jackson 5. I’m very big in honouring the legacy of music, your heritage and letting people know how connected it all is.”
Honouring one’s heritage is something Ralph is very passionate about. As a child, his teachers, Bobby Craig and Ricky Mangum, were pivotal role models who ultimately inspired him to give back through teaching.
Rolle said: “Bobby made everyone believe they could do anything. Even a bunch of kids from the Bronx with rag-tag-put-together equipment. I’ve honestly carried that throughout my entire life.
“That’s why I love teaching and giving back when I learnt. I know it helped me and hopefully it can work for them.”