Remembering Killer Ray Appleton

SKF NOTE: In my last post I wrote about “new to me” drummers and their influence on other drummers. Certainly they have influenced and continue to influence me.

Earlier last week I realized I don’t often write about “new to me” drummers when drummer Ray Appleton came to mind. Appleton plays on one of my favorite albums, “The Blues is Now,” by singer Jimmy Witherspoon, which I did write about on May 19, 2019 in a post titled, “Ray Appleton: A Marvelous Blues Shuffle.”

Last week, after reading an email announcing the Jimmy Witherspoon/Charles Lloyd Witherspoon & Lloyd album, I wondered if Appleton was the album drummer. As of this writing I haven’t found a personnel listing, but I will keep looking.

Appleton, born in 1941, grew up in Indianapolis, childhood friends with jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. His name is written as Otis “Ray” Appleton, Ray Appleton, and on his own website, “Killer” Ray Appleton.

According to Appleton’s online biography:

“…“Killer” Ray Appleton was blessed to begin his career in the best possible environment. Mentored from an early age by the slightly older Freddie Hubbard, Ray had his first professional gig with Wes Montgomery at fourteen. By the age of nineteen, Ray had followed trumpeter Kenny Dorham to New York, there meeting such jazz icons as Philly Joe Jones and John Coltrane. In the mid-60s, Appleton toured and performed with Coltrane and Hubbard, appearing on Coltrane’s Infinity and Cosmic Music and playing a crucial role on Hubbard’s Backlash.”

Appleton plays percussion on two Infinity tracks and two Cosmic Music tracks. But he is the drummer on Freddie Hubbard’s entire Backlash album.

In fact, while researching for this post I discovered it was Ray Appleton playing drums on the Backlash tracks included in a double-LP I owned decades ago, The Art of Freddie Hubbard: The Atlantic Years. The track I remember best from The Art of…. is On the Que-Tee.

In an online interview, Appleton said of his playing, “…I’ve always been able to swing. The power of my drumming is in my right hand and in my cymbal ride.”

Researching this piece I discovered Appleton has albums under his own name: Naptown Legacy, Killer Ray Rides Again.

His bio tells us during the 1970s and 1980s Appleton lived and worked in Europe. In 1997 diabetes caused partial amputation of his left leg.

Appleton said, “I had to learn how to play differently, because of all the stuff I used to do on my left side. Before, I could do more things on the drums.”

To what extent Appleton’s amputation impacted his drumming – I don’t know. Appleton’s albums sound complete. Excellent bands and song choices, imaginative arrangements, and many first class soloists including, but not limited to, Charles McPherson (alto sax), John Hicks (piano), Slide Hampton (trombone), and Appleton himself.

Ray Appleton was new to me as a wonderful blues drummer. He is still a wonderful blues drummer. Any time a drummer asks how to play a blues shuffle, I point him or her to Appleton on Good Rockin’ Tonight from the Blues is Now album.

Appleton also left a legacy as a swinging, straight ahead jazz drummer well worth listening to and remembering.

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