Ralph Carney, whimsical, prolific saxophonist; at 61

NEW YORK — Ralph Carney, a saxophonist and jokingly self-described “man of a thousand instruments” heard on albums by Tom Waits, the Black Keys, St. Vincent, Elvis Costello, the B-52’s, and Allen Ginsberg, died Dec. 16 in Portland, Ore.. He was 61.

His death, after suffering head injuries in a fall at his home, was announced on Twitter by his nephew Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys. Ralph and Patrick Carney collaborated on writing and recording “Bojack’s Theme” for the animated Netflix series “Bojack Horseman.”

Mr. Carney emerged from Akron, Ohio, in the late 1970s as a member of Tin Huey, a band on the arty side of new wave, and he became a busy studio musician. Although best known for playing saxophones of all sizes, he had a voluminous arsenal that included clarinet, trumpet, violin, harmonica, panpipes, keyboards, trombone, ukulele, and banjo.


“I try to play every instrument ever made,” he once told a television interviewer.

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His long list of studio credits reflects not a colorless sideman for hire but a versatile musician with a distinct sensibility: whimsical, rowdy, eclectic, wry, historically informed, sometimes spooky, sometimes absurd.

He could make his saxophones honk, croon, cackle, and lament.

Waits often relied on Mr. Carney, beginning with his album “Rain Dogs” in 1985. He once described Mr. Carney as “guided by some other source of information.” He added: “He’s like a broken toy that works better than before it was broken.”

Mr. Carney was born Jan. 23, 1956, in Akron. His first instrument was banjo, which he began playing in junior high school. An entirely self-taught musician, he turned to saxophone at 15 and immersed himself in jazz, from traditional to avant-garde.


After high school, he joined Tin Huey. It released an album on Warner Bros. in 1979, “Contents Dislodged During Shipment” but had no hits and split up in the early 1980s. Tin Huey has convened occasional reunions, including the 1999 album “Disinformation.”

Through the next decades, Mr. Carney’s playing was welcome at sessions for albums such as “Mesopotamia” by the B-52’s, St. Vincent’s “St. Vincent,” the Black Keys’ “Attack and Release,” the Waitresses’ “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” and the recent “Case/Lang/Veirs,” by singers Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs.

He also provided music for spoken-word recordings by Ginsberg and other writers, including William Burroughs.

Mr. Carney’s albums as a leader included “Ralph Sounds” in 1997, “I Like You (a Lot)” in 1999, “This Is! Ralph Carney” in 2003, and “Seriously” by Ralph Carney’s Serious Jass Project, a swing-flavored group, in 2011. Other projects in which he was involved include the Oranj Symphonette, which specialized in the music of Henry Mancini.

Three days after the mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, Mr. Carney posted “Lament for Charleston,” a somber saxophone-chorale elegy, on his Bandcamp site. The Kronos Quartet heard it and had him perform it with them.


Mr. Carney’s music was also at home on animated television series, including “Encyclopedia” and “The Motion-Enhanced Chronodirectional Adventures of Romanov.”