The Letter Edged In Black

alt(Editor’s note: lifelong musician and music historian Jim Downing offers a tribute on Bill Raffensperger)

Bill would’ve been 70 this year. He tried to take care of himself; he quit smoking and drinking years ago, not that he was ever much consumed by either. He never cared for illegal refreshments

 He’d had a heart attack and a bypass operation. A few years ago he was diagnosed with MS, but it went into remission. A few weeks ago he said he’d been having trouble swallowing, but he ate all that was on his plate. Had I known his family history, I would have said something, but it may have already been too late then.

He had fallen several times since the onset of MS. Last week he fell in the bathroom, got stuck and burned his shoulder on a heater. At the hospital they diagnosed esophageal cancer, possibly stage 3 or 4. The testing was awful. Tuesday he called to ask “Can I go now?”

He passed on Wednesday morning January 13.

He pretended to be a curmudgeon, but he was a kind and sensitive man. Well, he could be scathingly satirical, but he usually asked us not to repeat any of those things. (Hmm. I wonder what he’s said about us?) He claims he was bitching about something and someone asked him if there was anything that he would actually like.

“All I want is a woman that looks like Jane Fonda and plays the drums like Chuck Blackwell,” he said.

Bill may have been THE first rock and roll bass player in Tulsa. He started on Tuba and upright bass, and it’s pretty certain he had one of the first electric basses, a Dan Electro someone gave him.

There was this guy who watched him closely at some of those early gigs. The guy bought a bass and was soon taking Bill’s gigs away from him. That guy was Carl Radle, who unequivocally cited Bill as his favorite player. When Clapton’s band inducted Carl into the Oklahoma Music Hall Of Fame, it was Bill who played bass

It was Frank McPeters. who suggested we ask Bill to join The Zigs. Drummers and bassists have to click. I never thought he’d even consider it, but he had no shame. We have to admit we’re now spoiled for life having played with Bill for the last six years. All bass players must now stand in his shadow by our reckoning.

He was a brilliant thinker and loved to read and watch science shows. He was quick-witted and often cracked us all up with his comments.

Bill played with Johnny Cale for most of the last 40 years and probably often before that. They’d known each other half a century. Cale has written a couple of hundred songs and he often doesn’t play them the way they are written. Imagine memorizing a catalog and being able to identify the song and recall it.

altWhen Flash Terry toured Europe he took Bill along.

The last three years Bill also played with Tommy Crook on Friday nights at Lanna Thai. Trying to follow where Crook is going is no small feat. Crook plays songs with lots of chords and is likely to change key without notice.

Bill, like Cale, is of the generation that was playing in the early days of rock and roll, so they had to know current hits and a lot of the old standards from the forties and before.

Bill had the right feel for rock and roll. Some bass players are dubbed ‘frustrated guitar players’ who play busily. Bill was content to keep it simple and occasionally toss in some incredible lick just to remind you that he knew his axe inside-out. Like many unique players, his tone seemed to be in his hands – no matter what axe he played.

Humility was part of his credo. He brushed off compliments and disliked having his picture taken. He did not drop names, but occasionally something would slip out. This was usually only if there was a funny story involved. “That was the night Steve Stills sat in.” or “Frank Zappa? I had dinner with him in Hawaii.”

He opened for The Band at Carnegie Hall. He was in the first Clapton’s Crossroads documentary and is in the Cale documentary. Last time out, Tom Petty sat in

 There’s really no telling how many big names played with Bill or how many hugely famous people he met. He knew that was no true measure of who he was.

He was a good man; kind and generous. He was also very smart, wise and funny. If I can make time, I’d like to go through the Gazette archive and pull out all the funny comments he’s made.

“You know why people play bagpipes? Because they can’t play guitar,” he joked.

We loved Bill like a brother. His talent and personality will be sorely missed.


“His playing lifted me up.” – John Hoff
“He was one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met….” -Wanda Watson
“Amen Wanda. He was one of the nicest guys I ever worked with. Everyone who ever knew him will miss him.” Michael R. Green
” I am saddened to think that not enough people knew his genius.” -Greg Lew
“Bill was the best, a great friend, a wonderful person and an excellent musician.” –Rocky Frisco