Ralph Carney Dies at 61: Saxophonist, Composer, Tom Waits Collaborator

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Ralph Carney in 2010. (Artist photo)

Ralph Carney, the innovative saxophonist whose tone was as large as his sideburns, has died at 61, Consequence of Sound reports.

An imaginative musician and session player who collaborated most famously with Tom Waits in the mid-1980s, as well as groups like Galaxie 500 and the Waitresses, Carney first came to prominence in the new wave group Tin Huey, based in Akron, Ohio.

Ralph Carney, 2015
Ralph Carney, 2015. (Photo: Dennis Hearne)

Carney, the uncle of the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, would go on to a career spanning new wave, jazz, indie rock, experimental music and, in a recent composition based on the Charleston shooting, classical music. In 2014, he and nephew Patrick collaborated on the theme song to the Netflix series BoJack Horseman.

“Our family and friends are all devastated. He was an immensely talented musician, deeply thoughtful and funny," said Patrick Carney in a statement. "Without him I never would have listened to the music I do or even considered playing it.” On Twitter, he added that Ralph Carney "taught me so much.... he sat me down at 15 and made me listen to the Shaggs. We all need an uncle like that."

On saxophone, violin and other instruments, Carney reached perhaps his most appreciative audience playing with Tom Waits. As a key contributor to Waits' reinvention in 1980s New York, Carney helped solidify a strange new direction in music alongside guitarist Marc Ribot on albums like Frank's Wild Years and Rain Dogs. Though replaced in Waits' band on recent tours, Carney appeared onstage with Waits at Bay Area concerts as recently as 1999.


In San Francisco, where he lived for 28 years before moving to Portland in 2015, Carney was a member of the Oranj Symphonette with Matt Brubeck, son of jazz legend Dave Brubeck. He also headed up the outfit Carneyball Johnson, using his multi-instrumentalist skills to great effect. Throughout his career, Carney collaborated with the B-52's, Yo La Tengo, Jonathan Richman, They Might Be Giants, Medeski Martin & Wood, Bill Laswell, Elvis Costello, Frank Black, Les Claypool, the Black Keys and many others.

In 2015, after the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, Carney was watching TV when the shooter was arraigned. "The victims’ families were there, and they were all like, ‘I forgive you,’” Carney told KQED. “I just lost it. I was crying, and I was thinking about John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama.’” The result, "Lament for Charleston," was performed at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz with the Kronos Quartet.

The cause of death, according to early reports, is related to injuries sustained in an accident. Services have not yet been announced.