A POEM FOR BIG RED by John Sinclair

Poet-author-scholar-human John Sinclair wrote “this little ode in memory of my pal Big Red, who passed away in Lansing MI around Christmas time”…

hold your horn high
for ron redman gulyas

early sunday afternoon
taking coffee at the dolphins
& the spring training reports
from the detroit news on-line,

all of a sudden
i’m at the batting cage
in royal oak 20 years ago
with big red,

a great big motherfucker in his late 20s
who weighed about 390
& played the tenor saxophone
with the sound of yore

like coleman hawkins
& ben webster were whispering
in his ear
while he fingered his horn,

big red
was a great big crazy motherfucker
who could tell you
the high school & college stats

for all the players
coming up on the tigers in the spring,
& he still played baseball himself,
semi-pro for a lansing team,

not the popular lansing lug-nuts
but some obscure outfit
that would pay him a few bucks
to suit up & power a couple of balls

out of the park,
& he claimed to be a gypsy
or either related to the little giant
of jazz, don redman

& he played
anything he wanted
on the tenor saxophone,
incomplete skills but

plenty of feeling, a
warm sound
that was always good to hear,

big red,
my man,
he backed me up so many times
& played in my band (even though

johnny evans couldn’t stand
the way he played
the other tenor sax),
a great big crazy motherfucker

who drank more beer
than anyone you seen, & his weight
would go up & down
from 390 to 210

& then back up again,
& in the early ’90s
he fled the united states
& roosted in budapest

for a few years
& had a ball playing his horn
calling himself “ron goulash”
like the hungarian stew

& why he ever came back
will never be known
but he passed in east lansing
just before christmas?

big red,
hold your horn high,
let us hear your raspy breath,
my brother, just one more time

–the dolphins,
march 19, 2006

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

8 thoughts on “A POEM FOR BIG RED by John Sinclair

  1. I am really sad to here that there is no longer a Big Red in this world. It is as if the black rhino had become extinct. Love him or hate him, big red was a unique individual who always said what he thought, in his own inimitable fashion.

    I remember giving him a lift to his night job as bouncer at Star’s Black & Tan in Lansing (his car broke down, had been impounded, etc, etc.) “Oh damn, I forgot to get me a roll o’ god-damned pennies,” he said. “You mean they actually trust you runnin’ the cash register over there?” I asked him. “Oh Hell, no, man—when there’s trouble I just pack that roll right here in my hand—they don’t get up when you swat ‘em just one time.”

    I still laugh when I remember Red tellin’ me about how he used to supplement his income by selling cats to a “genuine fur-lined” glove manufacturer in Charlotte. “You get you a couple ‘a old tuna fish cans & throw ‘em in the trunk o’ yer’ car in some alley, like in back of the old Marshall Music, & go off & get you a cup ‘a coffee. Come back & there’ll be five or six of ‘em in there—you just slam the trunk & drive to a garage where they have a guy with thick leather gloves that’ll pull ‘em out’a there. They pay anywhere from 10-20 dollars, unless you get you one o’ those with the fox-like fur that they’ll give you 25 for.”

    Red once went on the road with Tony Rongo & his wife—they had the duo “Nova Jazz.” Their van got stuck in an icy rut & Red jumped out & proceeded to lift the back-end of the Ford van out of the ditch. “Throw him a piece of raw meat!!” Tony exclaimed.

    Red may not have had a degree and his theory was too truncated for him to really do hard bop, but I think he was a better player than many give him credit for. As John said in his poem, red had the big, rich sound that can only be had from a wide-opened metal mouthpiece that has been bored out several times, to where normal players would not be able to even make a sound on it—it requires enormous wind power to do so. But Red could play some deeply soulful blues with rich, low whispering sub-tones and fierce growls. He really knew how to swing and he had a charisma that got people to rally behind him. His music was far more meaningful than some who have mastered technique, but have nothing interesting to say.

    I’m really sorry to learn that he’s no longer around.

  2. One time when we (tony and I) were at an outdoor barbecue with BIG RED- we were having ribs. There were several bees in the backyard of the people giving the barbecue party. I was terrified and could not eat the ribs. BIG RED SAID: Ain’t enough bees in the world thta can keep BIG RED away from a plate of ribs. It was hilarious!!

  3. P.S. Tony and BIG RED are making music in Heaven for sure. My husband Tony Rongo passed away on Feb. 15th 2007. I miss him so, but I KNOW that he is making music and having fun up there -with his Dad and BIG RED!~!

  4. He is so missed .His old group.
    Big Red (Tenor Sax)
    Byran lyles (drummer)
    Clerance DeMeyers (Keyboard)
    Bill Cassell (Upright Bass)
    Jay Hawkins (Congos)
    We were bigs reds band playing all around lansing in the 80s.

  5. Today I was listening to some blues and had a flashback to my time at Mich State Univ in the mid 80’s. I briefly sat in on drums with local group that played a weekend gig at the lounge of one of the hotels off of 96 in Lansing. I don’t remember the name of the hotel or all the names of the members. However, I remembered a guy that sat in on tenor one weekend by the name of Big Red. Red was the type of guy that made his presence known and much of what was said about him here is how I remembered him. While our paths crossed just that one encounter he made a lasting impression of one who loved music and loved life. We had a great time playing together that weekend.

    I am not sure what made me do a google search for “Big Red” + Lansing but, I am sorry to hear of his passing some years back. I am sure he is well remembered and loved by many.

  6. I met Ron in the 1990’s in Budapest. We used to hang out together a lot and talked about many things like the Balkan war. We often used to play together in the smokey new clubs of Budapest.
    I taught myself to play the trumpet and he would often teach me. Once after a concert I was very unhappy with how I had played but he encouraged me saying: “You have good sound and that’s all you need, ” and he laught with his characteristic high-pitched laugh, which sounded like his sax. His comment has helped me to gain confidence in how I play ever since.
    One of my most-cherished memories is when our saxophone-trumpet duo opened my exhibition in the Blue Chapel Gallery in Balatonboglár, Hugnary.
    Kárpáti Dódi

  7. Big Red was my sax teacher when I was a grad student at MSU in the mid 1980s. Like others have noted in this forum, it was obvious that he was self taught. He had a large and impressive tone, reminiscent of the 50s era Texas tenors. Our lessons were mostly BS sessions and my introduction to the history of jazz and baseball! My tuition was also his way to supplement his meager VA and welfare checks.

    He came to visit me in Philly after I graduated and I took him to the jazz brunch at Sweet Basil’s in Greenwich Village one spring Sunday in 1990. He sat in with “Doc” Cheatham and blew the doors off the place. It was such a treat to see Red in his element.

    RIP Big Red! You were a character like no other.

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