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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Music was Rev. Ralph’s pulpit

I don’t know that Rev. Ralph actually ever saved any souls. That wasn’t his mission.

But I do know he brought a little joy and comfort to countless souls, many of them living on the edges and in the shadows of our town.

Ralph Mendoza Ferrera, “Rev. Ralph” died Thursday of an apparent heart attack.

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The last time I heard him play was a few months ago at Trinity Cafe on Florida Avenue, that wonderful place where the homeless and hungry can get a meal and an hour of shelter and dignity before going back into a rougher world. I was sitting at a table with three others when Rev. Ralph walked up to the piano in the corner and began to play.

This wasn’t background music. It was a range of material, all played along with his banter about life in general. It was, as we say, good stuff ... if you can picture a mix of boogie, rock and even a folk song or two.

Ferrera was only 58, but he made music around here for decades. One of the reasons he happened to be at Trinity Cafe was that years ago, back when the building that’s now the cafe was called the “Dream Bar” and was a known underworld hangout, Ferrera came there for the music.

It ran in the family. His sister, Rose Tozzi, says he came from a musical family. “It was like that,” she says. “My parents, my brothers and my sister would cook and clean up the house to music. It was like we danced our way through the house growing up. My dad was born in Tampa but went to New York looking for work. He met my mom up there, at a place called the Floridana Club if you can believe that.”

Eventually the family made its way back to Tampa.

“Those were different times and my brothers — Ralph and Rick are identical twins — grew up wandering around the neighborhoods. They were drawn to music, and I think it was peering into a couple of black churches in our area off Nebraska and Columbus avenues that they fell in love with gospel music. Back at our house my dad would play big-band music and Mexican and Cuban music on the old RCA, and so it was never quiet around our house.

“Rick played the guitar and Ralph the piano, although neither one of the boys really had music lessons, except for one class at George Washington Jr. High with Mr. Leone who had them on a violin and a cello.

“They managed to get a job in an Ybor bar by penciling on fake mustaches and sideburns with shoe wax to look older. Their first night working a strip bar in West Tampa, the bright lights melted their makeup, and they were fired.”

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As they grew older they found jobs in local clubs. Ralph played in the first “Tropical Heatwave” in Ybor City.

It was out of the neighborhood churches and a natural flair for being funny that “Rev. Ralph” came to be. You could find the brothers all over town, from Skippers out near USF to bars in South Tampa.

And then they stopped. “Ralph’s health was not good,” says his sister, Rose. “He was a heavy smoker and he had diabetes. There was an alcohol problem.”

Weeks became months. One afternoon Ralph walked into Trinity Cafe. Cindy Davis is the director.

“I had actually gone to high school with Ralph,” Davis said. “He said he had come by to just see what had happened to the old Dream bar. He saw our piano in the corner and went over and just started playing.

“He began playing for our lunches and our clients loved it. He said he could relate to these people better than the ones at the clubs and bars he had played in. He was a special person and we are all going to miss him.”

His twin brother, Rick, is still out there; the other night playing at a South Tampa bar called “Barefoot Billy” with Sam Osbourne as a team known as “Torne and Frayed,” which was either a Rolling Stones song or the way things are going.

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