7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, through Sunday, Feb. 9 | various venues | ralphameduri.com | $10 Friday, $15 Saturday, free Sunday
The room was packed. It pretty much always is when Thomas Wynn and the Believers play Jessie’s Lounge in Winter Haven. The band was booked to play two sets that night, with a break in the middle. A few days before the show, Wynn had called local musician Ralph Ameduri to see if he could fill in for then-Believers bass player, Matt Lapham, who had a conflicting out-of-town gig. “Yes, I’d love to,” Ameduri told him.
“He had filled in maybe 10 times before that,” Wynn says. “It was always a wonderful time, and everybody in the band really loved playing with him and really felt like he was a sixth member or something. He was the go-to guy if someone couldn’t do it.”
Wynn picked Ameduri up at his Orlando home at 4:30 p.m., and the band headed to the venue. They played their first set at 10:30 that night. Ameduri played the bass in his subdued way, rocking in time on his heels, his eyes closed and eyebrows slightly raised. He liked to tell his friends, “The best place to play music is where your feet are.” That night, his feet were at Jessie’s Lounge, and by all accounts, everybody there was having a good time.
At the break, the band went out back. It was around 11:30 p.m., Wynn says, and they needed a smoke break. That’s when an armed man approached the group and ordered them to the ground in an attempt to rob them. They did as he asked, but he let out a single shot anyway. It hit and killed Ameduri, injuring no one else.
Police were called. The band was stunned. It was difficult to accept that the man whose staunch opinions straightened the wheels on more than 20 Orlando bands that drove the local scene for more than two decades played his last show on Sept. 9, 2011.
‘I met him originally in the Seminole Community College jazz band,” Jack Sterling recalls. At the time, Seminole Community College’s reputed jazz program attracted a number of talented musicians like Sterling, Ameduri and Anthony Cole, and the band room was a meeting place where young musicians could experiment – or goof off, as they did on what was deemed “Bad Classical Night,” when students would raid the library for old sheet music and perform it haphazardly, not even bothering to pair the right instrument to the matching sheets. That was in 1988, and Sterling later went on to join Ameduri in six local bands, including the Legendary JC’s (soul), Riverbottom Nightmare Band (bluegrass), the Hamiltons (punk), Jazz X (jazz) and a curious project indicative of Ameduri’s experimental nature. Longtime friend and former business partner Jeff Sweat (who also created the cover art for this story) says the project sprung from a habit Ameduri had when they were working at Metropolis Graphics. Ameduri would bring in a turntable and skip Charles Ives records over and over, which tormented Sweat but fascinated Ameduri.
“He did an album with Jack Sterling called the New Maitland Turntable Ensemble, where they set up 12 different turntables at the Sapphire (the Social) and skipped records,” Sweat says. “And it either drove people batshit or they loved it.”
Sweat is now the organizer of Ralphfest, a growing local music festival in its third year that benefits Ameduri’s family and feeds the Ralph Ameduri Jr. Music Scholarship, which awards one Seminole County high school senior the musical instrument (valued at $500) required to pursue a music education.
The student does not necessarily need to be college-bound – last year’s recipient, Joseph Baker, will perform piano for Lorna Lambey and the Mark Wayne Tribute Orchestra as part of Ralphfest on Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Beacham.
Ralphfest 3 features 45 bands, many of which were acts that Ameduri was associated with throughout his career, taking place over three days, Feb. 7-9. It wraps up at the Lucky Lure in Ivanhoe Village, and the second day’s shows are downtown at the Social and the Beacham, featuring headliner Sebadoh. The first day, though, kicks off the event at Lil Indies and Will’s Pub, the venue that most of Ameduri’s former bandmates identify as a clear favorite. It’s the first year Will’s Pub has hosted Ralphfest shows, something Will Walker admits surprises him when he realizes it.
“Together, we played so constantly that I can tell you that Will’s Pub was always home,” says Brian Chodorcoff, who played with Ameduri for 15 years in bands like My Friend Steve, the Legendary JC’s and Riverbottom Nightmare Band. “Ralph had a hero named Hasil Adkins. And Will convinced Ralph to spend a small fortune to get this unknown legend to Will’s. Will did it, and nobody showed up, except like 12 of us. Will ate it. Who else would still give you a free bar tab?”
Sterling credits the venue as a birthplace of local bands, including many Ameduri bands like The Legendary JC’s and Speed Buggy: “When we had new projects, we could always take them to Will’s Pub, or even invent a project at Will’s Pub,” he says. “He was pretty open to whatever we wanted to do, and that helped a lot.”
Ameduri had a playful approach to learning music, meaning he actively listened to every genre, informing his ear to recognize tones and production styles, which inevitably elevated his projects and the quality of any band that had the sweet-and-sour experience of hearing his honest opinion on how they sounded.
“He was always chosen by people [to work with] because his opinions on it mattered – and not just the technical side of music, like he really understood how to put music together, whether it was a reggae song or a punk rock song, he understood what the tone of the instrument should be, and where they should be in the mix,” Chodorcoff says. “He had a really grand way of looking at a song.”
In addition to his ample activity as a musician, Ameduri was also constantly four-tracking and ultimately became a producer, recording local bands like New Mexican Disaster Squad at his studio, No Ambition Records. Ameduri also recorded legendary local jazz artist Sam Rivers with Chris Charles, who is now part of the New Sam Rivers Rivbea Orchestra.
“Ralph had his hand in every project you could possibly know, and if you never met him, I’m sure you were in the same room with him,” Sweat says.
Music snob. The Great Debater. These were a couple of nicknames Ameduri earned among his friends and bandmates. His influences are so varied that it’s hard to discuss his tastes without condensing them into a Wikipedia-like compilation of bands and artists. When he was younger, Ameduri raided his father’s record collection for old 45s, spinning through all of them and initiating his own obsession with record collecting, resulting in an impressive, 10,000-strong vinyl library covering everything from classic country to deep reggae to hardcore punk.
“A while ago you could get a whole bunch of records for 50 cents or a dollar or something, so we’d always buy records if it had a cool cover or just sounded weird or something,” Sterling says. “That was a huge influence on him. That was one of our favorite pastimes, just finding records. We’d be on the frontlines more than in stores, garage sales and thrift stores, stuff like that.”
Eventually, Ameduri would open for some of the major artists whose records he’d collected and respected. Chodorcoff recalls the early days of the JC’s, when they were invited to open for huge acts like James Brown and B.B. King. When the band played Voodoo Fest the year Katrina hit New Orleans and the festival was moved to Memphis, they opened for Dr. John, an experience Chodorcoff says was surreal. But it was a different gig that perhaps represents the JC’s at their peak, with the original lineup of Ameduri, Chodorcoff, Sterling, Cole, Eugene Snowden, Jeff Nolan, Clay Watson and Brett Crook.
“I remember we had a gig, we opened up for a Bad Company reunion show, and we had a standing ovation there, and we had to leave to get to another gig,” Chodorcoff says. “We walk in to get to this other gig, and we get a standing ovation before we even played a note.”
Wynn credits this lineup of the JC’s for pushing him to pursue music as a serious career. Eventually, his band the Wynn Brothers opened for the JC’s, and after the show, Wynn remembers how Ameduri encouraged his brother, bass player Jordan Wynn. It impressed him and pushed him to become worthy of Ameduri’s praise.
“I just remember seeing [Ralph Ameduri] and Anthony Cole, who played drums for them, and just thinking that they were the best rhythm section I’ve ever seen in my life, personally,” says Wynn, who is 19 years younger than Ameduri was. “And that they were in my town – or that I was in their town, I guess – was very inspiring.”
Although Ameduri was proficient on both guitar and bass, he was most prominently recognized as a bassist. At Jessie’s Lounge, his bass is memorialized in a mural that’s 40 feet wide and 15 feet tall, painted by artist Mark Hannah.
“He was a really solid bass player, and that’s probably the best thing you can ask of any bass player,” Sterling says. “And he was happy to be a bass player. So many people want to be the star of the show, and that’s not how the bass player should be.”
This year’s Ralphfest is the first time the event has pulled in a national headlining band. Sweat chose Sebadoh because he wanted a band that Ameduri liked – and it’s no surprise that the impressive local bass player dug a band that (according to Sebadoh songwriter Lou Barlow) considers the bass guitar equal to the lead guitar.
“I never really understood why people didn’t think the bass was as interesting as the guitar,” Barlow says. “It’s like, take the Beatles, Paul McCartney’s bass playing is a huge part of that band. And in the ’60s, it seemed like there was a lot more songs that had louder bass. It seemed like over the years, production style really just pushed the bass to the edges of the mix, which I never really understood. Punk rock, to me, that was when I thought, well, the bass could have a chance to come back here. This could happen.”
Sebadoh was an important part of an emergent core of bands in the ’90s, along with Pavement and one of Ameduri’s other favorites, Guided by Voices, that pioneered a new style of lo-fi music made on four-tracks. Sebadoh became the principal vehicle for Barlow’s songwriting after he was ejected from his role as bass player in Dinosaur Jr. His style of playing bass treats the instrument as if it were a guitar and is wildly physical, which he says is in part to achieve more volume but also necessary to pull off the chaotic bass lines he comes up with.
“Because the way that I strum it, it’s not just about hitting it as hard as possible,” Barlow says. “It’s getting a kind of roar from the strumming and then picking notes out in there, and also in some ways, trying to fill a traditional bass sound in the lower parts but also create a lot of overtones with chords and things. So I think, actually, the physical part of it kind of has to happen, too, in order for me to really have those dynamics.”
So the spastic look of it really isn’t just for show. In the past, Barlow has toured with his Dinosaur Jr. bass, a Rickenbacker 4001, but when it became too unpredictable to use on tour, they went to the backup – the really cheap ’80s Fender Squier bass that Sebadoh’s Jason Loewenstein used when he originally joined the band. That’s what he’ll be playing at the Beacham for Ralphfest.
“Every time I play a Sebadoh song, I’m like, ‘OK, this is the time I’m gonna play it good. The other times are bullshit. This time I’m gonna really, really do it right,’” Barlow says. “That’s part of what makes it fun for me. And with Sebadoh, for sure, when we first started making records and going in the studio, we always made sure the bass was an equal part of the mix. The bass is real important for Sebadoh.”
Which is fitting, because the bass was also real important to Ameduri, and his early ’70s Fender Precision (dubbed Goldie) bass painted across the back wall of Jessie’s Lounge continues to inspire those who looked to Ameduri for musical guidance.
“In this community, so many people gained so much from him,” Chodorcoff says. “So, to a small degree, he’s still here, because his advice is still making records in our community sound better.”
RALPHFEST 3 6:45 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7 | Will’s Pub, 1042 N. Mills Ave.; Lil Indies, 1036 N. Mills Ave. | willspub.org | $10
At Will's Pub:
FunkUs 6:45-7:15 p.m.
SC Accidental 7:25-7:50 p.m.
Dave of Shew'bird 7:55-8:15 p.m.
Join Hands 8:20-8:45 p.m.
Bloody Jug Band 8:55-9:20 p.m.
The Rules 9:30-9:55 p.m.
Terri Binion 10:05-10:30 p.m.
Hindu Cowboys 10:35-11 p.m.
Rocket 88 11:10-11:40 p.m.
Thomas Wynn and the Believers 11:50 p.m.-12:15 a.m.
Big Jef Special 12:25-12:50 a.m.
Jim O'Rourke 12:55-1:20 a.m.
Gene and the JC Jumpers 1:30 a.m.-close
At Lil Indies:
Johhny Diggz 7-8 p.m.
The Actomatics 8:10-8:55 p.m.
Sunny 9:10-9:55 p.m.
The 1,4,5's 10:10-10:55 p.m.
Juno Smile 11:10-11:55 p.m.
Chris Charles Trio 12:05-12:55 a.m.
At the Beacham:
Riverbottom Nightmare Band 6:30-6:50 p.m.
The Belltowers 7:10-7:30 p.m.
Lorna Lambey and the Mark Wayne Tribute Orchestra 7:50-8:25 p.m.
Paddington Ambush 8:45-9:05 p.m.
The Legendary JC's 9:25-9:45 p.m.
At the Social:
Gerry Williams Band 6:20-6:40 p.m.
The Goldminers 7-7:20 p.m.
The New Lows 7:35-7:55 p.m.
Nervous Turkey 8:10-8:30 p.m.
Guided By Voices Tribute Band 9-9:20 p.m.
The Sh-Booms 9:40-10 p.m.
The Attack 10:15-10:35 p.m.
Precious (reunion) 10:50-11:10 p.m.
Brenden McNeil 6-6:40 p.m.
My Man Mohammed 7:7-45 p.m.
Princeton's Guff 8-9 p.m.
At Sky60: DJs Gomez, Mot, Ken Sherry, Nigel, Q-Burns Abstract Message
JUKE 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9 | The Lucky Lure, 1427 N. Orange Ave. | 407-250-6949 | facebook.com/theluckylure | free