Arizona music legend Jerry Riopelle dies of cancer at 77
Riopelle’s drunken ballet never went out of fashion in Arizona
If I could, I would build an Arizona musical Mount Rushmore.
The monument would have Marty Robbins and Alice Cooper as bookends. Inside would be Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Nicks.
Front and center, though, would be Jerry Riopelle, who died in his sleep earlier this week.
Riopelle never claimed national or international fame to the degree Robbins, Cooper, Ronstadt or Nicks did.
But in Arizona, Riopelle was clearly at the head of the class for more than 40 years.
His music ignited and spread like a wildfire in Arizona thanks to a Phoenix disc jockey who heard something he considered incredibly special. The year was 1974 and Riopelle’s third album, Saving Grace, was flying under the radar in most major U.S. radio markets. Not so at Phoenix’s KDKB Radio. DJ Bill Compton could not get enough of the record and soon had eight different songs from Saving Grace playing in his regular rotation.
Compton obviously knew his audience well. Forget what the rest of the United States thought of his music, in Phoenix Riopelle was a star of unparalleled proportion.
In a 2014 interview with The Verde Independent, Riopelle joked that the first time he came to Arizona “the fans knew my songs better than I did.”
At the time, Riopelle was trying to make a name for himself as a singer-songwriter. That was his avocation.
His vocation, though, was in the production room helping other musicians become stars. He was a Los Angeles-based music producer and songwriter for Screen Gems and later for legend Phil Spector.
So, when he first came to Arizona and discovered his songs from Saving Grace were being played incessantly on Phoenix radio, Riopelle was keenly aware of the opportunity that awaited him.
"We were going to do our first show in Phoenix and stopped by the radio station to do some promotion," Riopelle told The Verde Independent in 2014. "That's when I found out they had eight songs from Saving Grace in full rotation on the radio. I couldn't believe it. The next thing I knew he had Doug Clark from Celebrity Theater on the phone and he offered me $1500 to open a show ... I had never made more than $300 for a show.
"The next thing I knew, we were playing Celebrity Theater three nights in a row. It was dramatic and it was so much fun. I lived in LA and was in the record business so I was very aware of what was happening. It was amazing to see how my music worked with the right audience."
Over the next 40 years, Riopelle’s shows at Celebrity Theatre – especially his raucous New Year’s Eve performances – became the stuff of legend in the Grand Canyon State. To this day, Riopelle is the biggest ticket seller in the history of Celebrity Theatre.
“Playing New Year's Eve at the Celebrity Theatre is my favorite gig, in my favorite theater, in the world. It became a grand tradition in my life,” Riopelle said in a 2005 story in The Verde Independent.
For Riopelle, the affection showed to him by Arizona audiences was a two-way street: “We're friends, me and the audience. We're pals. That's the only way I can describe it. I feel so lucky. It is an amazing thing and certainly very gratifying ... I mean, how many people can keep something going like this for 40 years,” he told The Verde Independent in 2014.
Closer to home, Riopelle’s tight connection with Arizona had roots right here in the Verde Valley. Jerome’s Llory McDonald, of Combo Deluxe fame, played in Riopelle’s band and on several of his recordings for 30-plus years.
In the early 1980s, The Llory McDonald Band had been tabbed to perform as the opening act for a Jerry Riopelle concert in Prescott. After the show, she was approached by Riopelle guitarist David Plenn. A few months later, Riopelle asked her to join his band.
"It was a total learning experience," McDonald told The Verde Independent in 2005. "David Plenn was my mentor in every way; as a musician, as a performer and especially with my songwriting. The band became my family when I moved out to LA."
In those early days, McDonald said she purposely avoided Riopelle as much as possible.
"It was easier for me to talk to Dave. With Jerry, I was in awe of him. C'mon, I had gone to his concerts when I was 14 years old and he was this big star."
Over time, she says, the walls came down.
"Jerry is a real sweetheart," McDonald said in 2005. "He taught me so much about professionalism and songwriting and, more than anything, how to put on a show. Wow, what a show. He really knows how to put on a show."
Her most vivid memories of performing with Riopelle?
“JERRY! JERRY! JERRY!” McDonald told the Verde Independent in 2005. “The audience, still after all these years, is just so into the guy. They know every word to every song and people just cut loose.”
Musicians are a lot like boxers. Retirement usually doesn’t stick. Riopelle was scheduled to perform two sell-out shows at Scottsdale’s Talking Stick Resort this weekend until health concerns forced a cancellation of the shows. He said he planned to retire after these concerts.
How long retirement would have lasted is anyone’s guess.
"I've tried retiring ... several times," Riopelle told The Verde Independent in 2014. "It never lasts. I'll get a new song and then I get all excited again. I don't know that I'll ever be able to retire."
Jerry Riopelle Discography
• Jerry Riopelle - 1971
• The Second Album -1972
• Saving Grace - 1974
• Take A Chance - 1975
• Little Bit At A Time - 1977
• In The Round - 1978
• Dangerous Stranger - 1979
• Juicy Talk - 1982
• Hands On -1986
• In The Blood -1993
• Hush Money - 1994
• Tongue n Groove - 2000
• The Works 1970-2000 - 2005
• In the Round-Deluxe w/DVD - 2009