Ralph Willis

Ralph Willis (aka Ralph "Bama" Willis), b. 1910 near Birmingham, AL, d. June 11, 1957 in New York City, NY, Piedmont blues and country blues singer, guitarist and songwriter. Some of his Savoy records were released under the pseudonyms Alabama Slim, Washboard Pete and Sleepy Joe.

Ralph Willis moved to North Carolina in the 30s, and met Blind Boy Fuller, Eugene ‘Buddy’ Moss and Brownie McGhee; he was closely associated with McGhee in New York after he relocated there in 1944, and his recordings often have McGhee on second guitar. They range from delicate guitar duets to driving dance music, with a nice line in bawdy humour, although he could also be lazily wistful, as on his solo cover of Luke Jordan’s ‘Church Bells’. Despite his connection with McGhee and Sonny Terry, Willis did not capitalize on the burgeoning folk revival. He was known as ‘Bama’ for his rural ways; he perhaps lacked the drive or the self-confidence to achieve mainstream success.

Ralph Willis Biography by Uncle Dave Lewis

Ralph "Bama" Willis was an outstanding Piedmont-style blues singer and guitarist, so named as he was born and raised in Alabama. He was not heard from until the late '30s, when he was known to have relocated to North Carolina and to work in the circle of musicians centering around Blind Boy Fuller, although Willis did not record with Fuller. By the time Ralph Willis did make it into studio, for the tiny, New York-based Regis label in 1944, his assimilation of Fuller's sound and style was already complete. Willis would continue to record with regularity through 1953, producing 50 sides altogether for Savoy, Signature, 20th Century, Abbey, Jubilee, Prestige, Par, and King.

Willis' material was all generally original, and rooted in his experience as a rural stylist, although during his recording career he lived and worked in New York City. Admittedly Willis' best recordings are the ones he made solo, as they have the most liberated sense of rhythm, but over time the record companies that employed Willis would prefer it when he worked with an accompanist. At first, little-known guitarist/bassist Judson Coleman joined Willis on his 20th Century sides, made in 1946. By 1949, Willis' old friend Brownie McGhee was backing him up on his dates; Willis would have known McGhee from their days with Fuller. For Willis' final sessions on Par, Prestige, and King in 1952 and 1953, Willis was joined by both McGhee and McGhee's regular partner Sonny Terry.

Willis never departed from the rural blues idiom in which he was best able. His recordings demonstrate a remarkable variety of styles, ranging from the languid, relaxed type of sad, slow blues that Brownie McGhee also specialized in when playing alone, to uptempo country dance numbers. Willis never jumped on the folk bandwagon, nor did he demonstrate any desire to upgrade his sound to an R&B format. Some of his records were issued under pseudonyms, such as Alabama Slim, Washboard Pete and Sleepy Joe (all used on his Savoy recordings.) When Willis died in New York City in 1957 he was only about 43 years old.