When I was a little girl, visiting my grandparents in the Quad Cities, I used to spend the hot Iowa summer afternoons in their cool musty basement. I had a little white rocking chair that was just for me, and I would pull it across the orange shag carpet to sit in front of their tiny television. Each day, I’d pick from the collection of VHS tapes, painstakingly recorded and labeled by my uncle as a gift for my grandmother: “Holiday Inn,” “An American in Paris,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Mother Wore Tights.” As if I wasn’t already a weird enough kid of the ’90s, I loved to baffle my friends with names like Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly. There was something about these films that was worth sacrificing my reputation for, something in the way they’d skirt across a stage on twinkle toes, or how breaking out into song in the middle of the storyline just made sense.
Last Christmas, I was standing in line at the post office, wondering right along with the other townspeople if we’d make it home for the holidays or just have to exchange our gifts with one another. Full of holiday cheer, conversation broke out, and I made the acquaintance of Ralph Nichols. We got around to talking about work and music, and I happened to mention this little column. He scribbled his contact information onto a USPS brochure, and when he handed it back to me, it said, “Ralph Nichols, Single Entertainer.”
The privilege of writing about music is how much it means to people, but also how that meaning can really run the gamut of interpretation. Many musicians I speak with consider themselves artists, expressing what feels otherwise inexpressible or tapping into a spiritual realm. Some are masters, perfecting a craft and bewildering the laypeople with their talent and dedication. And then there are others, like Ralph, for whom music is a conduit of connection, transferring joy and just good fun along to an audience. Entertainer, I thought, is a word you don’t hear as often anymore. It evokes nostalgia for a simpler day, when life was supposed to be enjoyed—or perhaps when it made sense to burst into song in the middle of a storyline.
Ralph, who has been a vocalist, musician and entertainer for more than 60 years, came-of-age with this sentiment and seems to have carried it along with him into the present day. “I know how to perform and how to get people to experience performance. There’s nothing like it. That first time you get on stage and you actually sing a song and you put out your heart and soul and all this energy—and then you get that response from the audience—that’s magical.”
Walt Disney issued Ralph’s first paycheck when he was a member of the Bob Mitchell Boys Choir, hired to sing on the themes of “The Big Circus” and “Toby Tyler.” “I got to sing backup on Frank Sinatra’s ‘High Hopes,’ and I did a year of traveling in Europe before high school, sang for the pope, sang for royalty—we were like the Hollywood version of the Vienna Boys Choir,” Ralph describes. This early exposure to the entertainment industry and his relationship to Bob Mitchell kept Ralph in entertainment gigs from Catholic masses in a Beverly Hills parish to night club gigs, all in the company of names like Jimmy Stewart and Tony Bennett, the “big old-timers,” he says. “The ones who were elite. Not cheesy. Just nice, accomplished people.”
He also toured extensively with The Lettermen, a pop trio established in 1959, that is one of the longest-running touring groups in the United States. He recalls a tough crowd in upstate New York shortly after The Lettermen had added Don Campo to their roster. “He took our group to a different level. He could rip anybody apart—cleverly,” Ralph says. “He said, ‘Give me the mic. Stay out of my way.’ Within minutes, he had these people on top of the tables, screaming. We got a standing ovation. He went for it—and he could do it.” He adds, “Entertaining goes way beyond the music. You have to read the energy and know what to give people. When I think of entertaining, that’s what I think of. Taking people to a new place.”
Whether from that little rocking chair of my girlhood, or from the stage at Tequilas where Ralph can often be found singing, true entertainers transport an audience for that sake of connection—a true art, in my opinion. It’s the legacy of music Ralph has hoped to build in his career and hopes will carry into future generations of entertainers.