Bernal Heights Mourns Ralph Carney, Celebrated Musician and Former Neighbor

Ralph Carney in 2010. (Creative Commons photo by Ralph Carney)

Bernalwood is sad to share news that former Bernal neighbor Ralph Carney has died. He was 61.

A career musician whose primary instruments were the saxophone and clarinet, Carney’s many collaborations included work with the B-52s, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, The Waitresses, and Galaxie 500. More recently, he’d worked with the Kronos Quartet, St. Vincent, Sun Ra, and many others. A documentary about Carney’s career has been in the works for several years.

On Saturday Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, Ralph Carney’s nephew, posted this tribute on Twitter:

For many years Carney was also a resident of Bennington Street in Bernal Heights. He moved to Portland, Oregon in 2015, but family and many of his friends still live in Bernal.

Bernal Neighbor Ken Shelf shared these memories of his friendship with Ralph Carney:

I’m pretty broken up about Ralph. He lived on Bennington until about 2 years ago. At that point, he and his wife had separated and he moved to Portland with his partner. His wife and his daughter Hedda still are here in the neighborhood.

He was a real larger than life type of guy, but super modest and quiet. He really let his music tell his story. He was dedicated to music in its totality. He was known to play 5, 6 sometimes 7 gigs in a week. He played with a huge variety of musicians.

He had his own projects, and he played with some huge bands, like They Might Be Giants, Tom Waits, Jonathan Richman and the B-52’s, and he played with tons of smaller local bands, including my old band The Dont’s, for whom he provided horns and wind instruments on two albums, and played many gigs with us. He also played weddings, bar mitzvahs, Strolls on Cortland Avenue, and sat in with jazz combos, open mics, blues bands and pretty much whoever wanted to rock out.

There is a joke in the SF music scene that Ralph has played on about half the albums that have been released during his time living here. For me, just about every musician I know has a connection to Ralph, whether that means playing with him, or sharing a bill with him, or just talking shop.

Ralph always had a nice word for other musicians. He wasn’t at all about trying to compete. He also was a strong voice advocating for musicians to get paid fairly. On top of everything else, he was a madman on stage, frequently playing multiple instruments at once sometimes while lying down on his back and just totally freaking out. He never held back while performing, emptying the tank every time. It was incredibly inspiring playing music with him, because he made you feel like going totally crazy yourself, just to keep up with his energy.

I didn’t know him super well, but I was always psyched to stand on the corner and chat about life and music and life in Bernal. I was sad when he moved to Portland, though we still shared many text chats and stayed connected to each other. I have a new music project right now and in the back of my head I’d been excited to send him some tracks to collaborate on. It is such a total bummer that Ralph passed. I really loved Ralph, and I will miss him greatly.

3 thoughts on “Bernal Heights Mourns Ralph Carney, Celebrated Musician and Former Neighbor

  1. Sadness indeed, I feel Ralph left Bernal but it never left him. He was a good friend and I read over my messages from him today and cherish the funny thoughts he shared. Life is so fleeting sometimes…treasure moments when you can.

  2. It seems that wherever two or more were gathered, Ralph was there. He was scheduled to be back in town during Christmas week to play various gigs including the Lucky Horseshoe on Cortland on the 30th.

    I’m not sure exactly when Ralph came into my life; it seems like he was always there. We talked a lot about music, his quirky ideas (among the instruments he played were toy horns and his famous slide clarinet). We talked about life and about just reach out to others and doing things with them.

    He had slipped and fell down some stairs at his home in Portland and hit his head. This just goes to show that life is precious and we have to make the most of it as we can. Remember that nobody will ever say, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

    There have been many deaths in my life, but few have affected me as much as Ralph’s because he meant hope. And hope is what we need.

    –david kaye

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