NEW GLASGOW – A small smile creeps onto Ralph Fraser’s face as he plays an upbeat piano piece after the Pictou County Community Orchestra finishes practising for their 25th anniversary concert at the Celtic Circle.
Fraser has been around the world for his musical skills, but returns to his hometown of New Glasgow once a year, usually to play with the orchestra.
“I just loved the music,” the 88-year-old says about why he started playing.
After it was passed down through a deceased relative, Fraser received his first piano as a young child.
He had tinkered with the instrument on visits to the relative’s home, but he “didn’t know what the hell it was.”
The rest is ancient history, he jokes.
Although he’s kidding, he has had a storied career, composing and arranging pieces, playing in hotels, on cruise ships and as the organist at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1970s and ’80s.
He’s immortalized as an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question as the organist who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Argonauts and the Blizzard, according to Canadian Jazz Archive.
He started lessons at 10 years old, and never had to be coaxed into practising.
“Even at a young age, they were very musical,” Joyce Davison, Ralph’s partner, says about him and his brother, Allister, who plays the viola in the local orchestra.
He saved money from his job at a local drugstore to go to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto in 1946.
After earning the ability to teach, he stayed in Toronto, but never did pass on his classical, jazz and pop knowledge.
Fraser played in countless venues, such as the Canadian National Exhibition, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and the set of CBC’s 1950s variety show Holiday Ranch.
His favourite gig was on cruises, travelling mostly in the Caribbean, including a three-month stint from Alaska to the Panama Canal and the Caribbean.
“It was a good way to travel and get paid for it.”
Although technically retired now in Markham, Ont., he continues to play in Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band.
This is his second retirement, after being pulled out of his first to join the Canadian Tribute to Glenn Miller in the 1990s.
He played with them for 10 years before they disbanded.
“He’s fortunate to do what he loves and make a good living,” Davison says.
Aside from the occasional gig, he spends his retirement relaxing, whether it’s fishing, attending a concert or visiting a schoolhouse he owns in Bobcaygeon, Ont.
His family is spread out across the East Coast with his brother and other relatives in Pictou County and his three grown children in Ontario.
His youngest, Rick, came along for the recent trip to New Glasgow to play violin in the orchestra.
Last year, Fraser came back to the area for the New Glasgow Music Festival for the 75th anniversary, a community facet in which he and his brother both took part in as children.
Fraser used to visit more before his mother died at the age of 105.
“It’s in their genes,” Davison says.
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Ralph Fraser recently came home to New Glasgow to play piano before the Pictou County Community Orchestra’s 25th anniversary concert. AMANDA JESS – THE NEWS