Alpha Productions (Ralph Ortiz)
Ralph was from Queens, New York and moved to Hopkins with his family in the 1960’s. After graduating from Hopkins High, Ralph enrolled at the University of Minnesota. Upon graduation from the University, Ralph went to work in the packaging business. A business trip toDuluth in 1967 would change the course of his career. In Duluth, Ralph stopped by a local night club and was impressed by the band playing there, The Titans. On a break, the band members just happened to sit at a table located close to Ralph and he overhead them talking about wishing to expand their market area beyond Duluth. Ralph just happened to know Joe Duffy, the owner of Duff’s in downtown Minneapolis and he was area that Joe was looking for a new band to play there. Ralph talked to the band members, they made the trip to Minneapolis and were soon playing at Duff’s. One of the band members told Ralph that if he were their manager he could be making 10 percent of their income. Ralph pondered the idea of being a booking agent.
The Titans told Ralph of another group in Duluth called The XL-5. Ralph went to hear them and was once again impressed by a Duluth band. Ralph got the band toMinneapolis and soon, The XL-5 became the house band at The Gables in Minneapolis (Lyndale and Franklin). Ralph went out and talked to the local club owners and found out what types of bands they were looking for. Ralph discovered that many club owners wanted the same thing: a dependable band with members that were well groomed, dressed well, and played popular songs that people could dance to.
With the success of the two bands Ralph decided to launch his own booking agency, Alpha Productions, in 1967. An office was secured in Burnsville and the first agents were hired. Ralph came up with innovative idea that would serve two functions, filming the bands playing live. The first function of the films was for the bands to actually see and hear themselves on stage performing, which Ralph used to point out any areas the band could improve in. The second function of the films was to allow club owners to preview the bands and see if they had any interest in them. At one meeting with a club owner, ten different bands could be reviewed in a relatively brief time period.
Another innovative idea that Ralph came up with was to record a live album of the bands he was booking. The album would be called Gathering at The Depot and was recorded live at The Depot (by Sound 80) in downtown Minneapolison September 13, 1970. The album was released in late, 1970. The album was sold at stores and given away as promo copies. In addition, the album got airplay on WDGY and KDWB. At WDGY, DJ Jimmy Reed promoted the record. At KDWB, program Director John Pete and DJ True Don Blue were behind the record. 10,000 copies of the album were pressed on the Beta label. Heilicher Brothers distributed the album.
In 1970 Ralph took an interest in Free and Easy and began to book the band. He also offered band leader Tom Behr a job as a booking agent with Alpha, as he was impressed with Tom’s positive attitude and insight into the music business. Tom Behr accepted the offer.
The Mystics were another band that caught the attention of Ralph. The band had mixed race musicians and certain clubs were fearful of hiring a mixed race band due to the (perceived) possibility of racial problems in the audience. Ralph convinced the clubs to try The Mystics on an “off night” and the club owners experienced sell out crowds with no racial tension or incidents of any kind. Ralph was able to get certain clubs to add a cover charge for The Mystics due to their high level of popularity.
By 1971, the agency was booking thirty-five acts and covered three states. Ralph expanded his business from teen clubs and nightclubs to include ballrooms and colleges.
In 1974 Ralph set up a separate advertising and promotion department.
In 1976, Ralph became a member of the International Theatrical Agencies Association, which opened up a ten state area for the Alpha bands. Ralph refers to the ten state area as the “Northern Tier.” Ralph became a member of the Board of Directors for the Association.
The mid-1970’s brought a wave of country rock bands to the country including Minnesota. In 1976, Ralph saw The Daisy Dillman Band perform and was impressed with their original songs, and high level of musicianship and vocal harmonies. Ralph set up Northern Star Artists to book and manage the band and got the group an album deal with United Artists. The album was recorded at Sound 80. The record came out in 1978 and sold 50,000 copies within a few months, got some airplay and charted on Billboard. Shortly after the record was released, United Artists was sold, and the new executives had a falling out with the band. A planned follow up album never materialized.
Another musical trend in the 1970’s was a revival of the 1950’s rock and roll hits and numerous “retro” bands formed to play the “golden oldies.” The national success of Sha Na Na played a large role in the renewed popularity of the 1950’s music. Ralph signed local band The White Sidewalls and the band quickly became popular on the ballroom circuit. The White Sidewalls became a regular band to play at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa for the annual Winter Dance Party tributes. Ralph put together a number of other similar “retro” bands.
In 1981, Alpha had six full time agents and was booking 120 acts (thirty-one of them exclusive to Alpha). On any given night, between 70 and 100 bands booked by Alpha would be working in Minnesota and across the country.
At the height of the success of Alpha Productions, Ralph decided it was time to move on and he sold the business. Ralph left behind a legacy of being an innovative booking agent who took a personal interest in making his bands successful and opening up new venues for the bands to play.
Ralph lives in Atlanta, Georgia and works as a partner with his wife in the prom dress business.
The 1970 album “Gathering at The Depot” has become a sought after album by record collectors.
Ralph is Living in Atlanta, GA
Interview PART TWO