Music producer, vocalist and business owner Ralph Lampkin, Jr. died June 24 of a heart attack. He was 66.
Lampkin was born April 29, 1957, in New York City, where he lived with his parents Ralph Lampkin, Sr. and Betty Jane Lampkin and younger siblings Lisa, Mark and Craig. During Lampkin's childhood, his parents made sure he and his siblings were exposed to the culture in New York City at the time, including going to the ballet, movies, musical performances and the theater.
Lampkin took violin lessons as a child and also taught himself to play the piano. Additionally, he started singing as a soloist in the Bronx borough-wide chorus after the family moved there from Manhattan. The chorus performed in many venues, including Carnegie Hall.
In a 2002 Chicago Reader profile of Lampkin, he spoke about wanting "to attend the School of Performing Arts [for high school]. 'My father said, 'No, you're going to a school where you can study a trade. I've been doing this for a long time and it's not a business for you. You're too soft-hearted. You're a sissy.' I decided to go to the [what was then called the] NY School of Printing and Journalism, because I could at least learn how to write about music, and it was in Manhattan, so I would be closer to the theater district.'"
Lampkin was determined to sing so he moved back to Manhattan to live with his grandfather (while still attending the NY School of Printing and Journalism) so he could go to open-mic nights. After Lampkin graduated from high school, he pursued his dream of being a performer in New York City for a number of years at various venues.
Chicago pianist Rocky Rockhold saw one of Lampkin's shows while on vacation in New York City in 1979, and urged Lampkin to do a gig in Chicago. It took until 1981 for Rockhold to get Lampkin to move to Chicago. Lampkin performed at many Chicago venues over the years.
After a number of years onstage, Lampkin decided to direct his focus toward consulting, management and producing for other performers with, among other endeavors, his Lampkin Music Group, which he founded in 1988; he continued as its president for the rest of his life. He also founded Lampkin Magic Productions and the LMG Music label. Lampkin also co-founded Orman Lampkin Music Group with Lynn Orman in 2018.
Lampkin's many producing credits included Alexandra Billings' tour-de-force autobiography, Before I Disappear, in Off-Broadway, Los Angeles, Michigan and Chicago venues. He also worked with Tony winners Donna McKechnie, Alice Ripley and Hinton Battle; Grammy winning singer-songwriter Marsha Malamet; Golden Globe and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter Amanda McBroom; Jeff Award winner Hollis Resnik; award winner Michele Brourman; Broadway and cabaret stars Karen Mason, Charles Busch and Michael McAssey; disco dance divas Linda Clifford and Suzanne Palmer; cabaret artists Spider Saloff, Tom Michael and Beckie Menzie; jazz icons Bob Dorough and Sheila Jordan; saxophonist-singer Danny Lerman; singers Joanie Pallatto, Josie Falbo, Martha Lorin, Kirsten Gustafson, Devin Richards, Martha Lorin, Carlo Chapelle, Susan May, Patty Morabito, Robin Kay, Tyler Stephenson, David Gurland and Tom Michael and singer-songwriter Richard Knight, Jr.
Lampkin met his future romantic and business partner, artist and hairdresser Lawrence "Beau" Bilenki, in July 1985 at a South Bend bar called the Sea Horse. For four years, Lampkin commuted back and forth to South Bend to be with Bilenki. In 1989, Lampkin moved into Bilenki's Victorian house and soon after they opened a combination art gallery, Beaux-Arts, and hair salon, Serendipity, in South Bend. Lampkin ran the salon, including working as the receptionist/storyteller, while Bilenki cut and styled people's hair. He also did benefits in South Bend for the Fire House Theater, Morris Civic Auditorium and the South Bend Public Library.
Bilenki told Windy City Times that the clients would spend many hours talking to Lampkin to get his advice on what to see when they traveled to New York City. He added that Lampkin had an ability to build relationships with people, which was a big asset to both his personal and professional endeavors. Bilenki also said "Ralph was a love magnet filled with genuine passion for storytelling, helping people and creative problem solving. A conversation with Ralph could last three hours at a minimum."
Additionally, Lampkin took on the un-paid role of Fire Arts Board President in 2010, and held that position until his death. The Fire Arts is, according to its website, "a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the creation and appreciation of the three dimensional arts of sculpture, pottery and jewelry."
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to shift how they worked since in-person communication was restricted, Lampkin turned to his social media accounts to promote his clients and other artists he was passionate about. He posted events and record release information on his Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Pinterest accounts, among others.
Most recently, Lampkin was doing promotions for Falbo's record release You Must Believe in Spring, and a concert at Winter's Jazz Club. At the time of Lampkin's death, he was also working with Pallatto to promote her new release, Accidental Melody; he was also working on promoting Sasha Daltonn's new project, The Empress, The Lady and The Queen as well as having Malamet's body of work be transferred to his possession.
Lampkin's other, more recent professional endeavors included his roles as the South Bend Jazz Festival promotions manager (since 2011), Southport Records promotions manager (since 2011), Blujazz Management and Booking Company marketing director (since 2017) and The Jim Masters Show booker (since 2020).
After 9/11, Lampkin wanted to do something to help the community, so he produced the A Time for Love benefit for the Red Cross. He was also a presenter and producer on behalf of AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Actors Equity, Bailiwick Repertory Theater, Carnegie Hall, City Winery and Chicago House, as well as events for former Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Tom Chiola, former Chicago Ald. Tom Tunney and former South Bend Mayor Steve Luecke.
Lampkin is also featured in the Who's Who In Entertainment and the British Who's Who lists, and was a member of ASCAP, NARAS and the Jazz Journalist Association until his death.
In a Facebook post on Lampkin's page last year he wrote, "In Chicago, I discovered many differences that affected my heart, my brain, my eyes and my head….ah, the beauty. La Cage was a wonderful experience which lasted months into 1982. I got this gig because of my friend, the fantastic person named Chili Pepper. She introduced me to the managers that ran the restaurant, and after hearing me sing, I was hired.
"It was on the first floor of the building that housed La Cage Aux Folles. It's where Alexandra Billings, Bobbi May (who sang live) and other excellent female illusionist worked in the early 80's. I had various jobs at some of the premier gay clubs, including being the entertainment for the Mans Country 10th Anniversary. I learned so much from performing in front of audiences who felt like I did at that moment, at the time of my awakening."
Lampkin is survived by Belenki, his siblings and countless chosen family members and friends. He was preceded in death by his parents.
"As most of us that knew Ralph, I am torn between heartbreak and garnering the strength to exalt the beauty of this man," said longtime friend Sarai (Padilla) Faulkner. "Our meeting could have easily not happened. Just 18 and 19, on my last day working at a Burger King in New York City, he filled my customer's drink order. My daughter, Kassandra, had just been born the previous month. I loved the role of godparents. And though he was Jewish, and I was not Catholic, I asked him. He was thrilled and fulfilled that role with profound love and dedication, for the past 47 years. That is who Ralph was in all areas of his life.
"So, who is Ralph to me and what have I lost? I lost the friend who walked with me in our hometown. I lost the friend who would tell me about new projects, artists, and ideas. I lost the friend I would tell about my travels. I lost the friend that saw my family grow. I lost the friend who I told when I dyed my hair for the very first time. I lost the friend who cared for me when I divorced and was there when I remarried including being part of our family photograph. I lost a friend who met my mother and I met his parents. I lost a friend who worried about me as I lived in New York City on 9/11 and when I traveled to the Middle East to work with orphans. I lost the friend who was always my friend when neither of us lived in New York City anymore. I lost the friend who flew me to South Bend to talk about AIDS. I lost the only friend who'd asked me if I was watching an award show. I lost the man who'd ask me why bad things were happening in our world. I lost my daughter's godfather. I lost a lifelong best friend. Frankly, I lost a part of my life. I love you Ralph and I always will."
Longtime friend and entertainment industry associate Knight, Jr. said, "Ralph was one of those larger than life characters that every performer dreams about having in their corner. His passion for talent was as legendary as his boisterous laugh. His devotion, enthusiasm, and generosity was legendary. He was a genuine characterand I use that word with the deepest affection and admiration."
Longtime friend and producing partner Orman said, "For Ralphie words and melodies meant everything to him. But it was the breath between the notes, his calls, his brilliant creative thoughts, ideas and his booming laughter, his immeasurable love for Beau and his friends that took my breath away over 40 years ago. We were young and eager to make stars out of a very popular band in Chicago named Panama led by Israel Torres. The women vocalists of Panama continued to be our good friends to this day. I was filming Mae Koen's performance for Ralph at the Bronzeville Music Festival when the news came in of his passing that day. It's an immeasurable loss to me, my best friend and producing partner for over 40 years.
"We shared so many pivotal moments together, like sitting with Julie Gold who wrote From A Distance when she won a Grammy and getting stuck in a small elevator with Sting and Trudie when I was seven months pregnant with my son, Jordan. Sting told Ralph (thinking he was the father), don't worry I can deliver the baby. Nobody can fill his shoes."
Longtime friend McAssey said, "I called him my 'Uncle' Ralph. It fit. He loved singers and took joy in helping us survive this business. No one was a better champion. Famous and unknowns alike, he took pride in promoting us all. There was no one like Uncle Ralph, and he will be sorely missed."
"Ralph was selfless," said longtime friend and producing partner Lerman. "He gave his most precious resource, his time, to help so many people, not even thinking of himself. Ralph lived in all the artistic worlds, with musicians from Jazz, R&B, Latin and Cabaret, sculptors, painters, ceramic artists, actors and actresses. There was a Venezuelan artist in South Bend that Ralph helped get a sponsor and his residency papers. In the music world, Ralph produced shows around the country, as well as where he lived for over 30 years in South Bend. He co-produced the South Bend Jazz Festival and South Bend Music Festival and presented in venues such as Century Center, The Morris Center and concert clubs Trio's, Vegetable Buddies and the Acorn Theatre. He produced shows in New York City at Carnegie Hall and the Iridium among other places. He worked with the South Bend Civic Theater for years, producing shows, and doing set design and lighting.
"Ralph also managed his partner Beau Belinki, a talented artist, painter, sculptor, ceramic artist and hair stylist. Ralph's creativity and guidance were always given joyously and unselfishly, being happy to remain in the background and let his artists and friends shine. He gave his help selflessly for the love of art and people. He didn't ask for much money and many times didn't ask for any money, he just wanted to help. He managed and worked with me for 30 years and did publicity with Greg Pasenko's Chicago record label Blujazz. Ralph put on songwriting workshops in South Bend and brought together artists for collaborations."
Longtime friend and Southport Records co-owner Pallatto said, "Ralph was always in your corner. We coproduced many live events together, between his company, Lampkin Music Group, and our Southport Records. Some highlights include The After Party for Von Freeman at the Iridium in New York City in 2012, A Toast to George Freeman at City Winery in Chicago in 2018 and Joanie Pallatto-My Original Plan CD Release Party at Pangea in New York City in 2021. He sailed past 60 minutes like it was yesterday and will be greatly missed by me and many others."
Longtime friend and Southport Records co-owner Bradley Parker-Sparrow said, "Ralph was one of the only people who knew that jazz and cabaret were the same thing. As a Chicago piano player, I figured I'd never play any gig in New York City. New York cats are scared of Chicago cats. Ralph always got the gigs."
Longtime friend Daltonn added, "I don't know where to begin. I have known Ralph for over 45 years, He defined the word friend. We were young and excited. We were the future stars but Ralph was special. He talents had no boundaries. Whether he was working as a performing artist, producer or consultant, I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't consult with Ralph before making a decision regarding a project and that included CD's, theatrical productions and media relations. His advice was always correct. In fact, Ralph and I were working on my new project, The Empress, The Lady and The Queen. I cherish the precious memories of our friendship until we meet again."
"Ralph was amazing," added longtime friend Jennifer Girard. "He was filled with charisma and kindness. I never spent a dull moment when I was with him. His network of friends and clients was easily passed along to others. He will be missed."
Longtime friend and work colleague Abbé Sparks said, "Ralph Lampkin, 'Ralphie' to me and to those that knew him well, was a gentle giant in every sense of the word. My relationship with Ralph goes back almost two decades now as a friend, colleague, publicist, collaborator, cheerleader, co-conspirator and, possible distant relative. (But that story is for another time.) To me, Ralph is what I call an old school press agent with social media knowledge. His extraordinary talents were acknowledged by the rolodex of clients in the cabaret and theater worlds who held him in high regard. I ended up being one of those as well when I hired him to help publicize for the New York City premiere of my show Christmas Aint A Drag.
"Ralphies tentacles of love and networking were far reaching and wide. One of the true gentle giants. As colleagues, our business projects cross-pollinated most often. My company's motto is 'Do it with passion or not at all' and if there was ever anyone who fits that description besides me it was Ralph. My brand is all about igniting the sparks and I am confident that Ralph is still doing just that in that big show in the sky. Forever in my heart, Ralph will always ignite my sparks."
To contribute to Lampkin's funeral expenses, visit gofundme.com/f/ralph-lampkin-final-arrangement-fund. A celebration of life will take place at Fire Arts. Details TBA.
See chicagoreader.com/news-politics/for-a-song/ for more on Lampkin's life.