Remembering Jerry Riopelle, Arizona Music Legend

Jerry Riopelle was one of Arizona's most beloved musicians.
Jerry Riopelle was one of Arizona's most beloved musicians. Courtesy Danny Zelisko Productions
On December 26, just a couple of days shy of two shows at Talking Stick Resort, rock musician and record producer Jerry Riopelle, 77, died of complications related to cancer.

His web team posted the notice of his loss on his official Facebook page, which stated that his passing was unexpected. They also asked for respect and privacy for his loved ones as they absorb their heartbreaking loss.

The statement on social media regarding Riopelle’s passing was shared by nearly 600 people, with nearly the same number of glowing comments extolling how his music affected so many lives. For many fans, seeing Riopelle live was where it was at; around these parts, his New Year’s Eve shows – dating back to 1975 – were legendary.

There are a few different events that could make you assume that Riopelle was born and raised in Arizona. In 2007, he was inducted into the Arizona Hall of Fame. A couple of years prior, then-mayor of Phoenix Phil Gordon pronounced December 31 “Jerry Riopelle Day.”

In fact, Riopelle was born in Detroit and grew up in Tampa, Florida. He made his way out to Los Angeles in 1960 and started a career as a producer, playing some music on the side. While mastering the art of production, he wrote and produced songs for a number of acts such as We Five and Shango. When 1971 rolled around, he released his first solo LP.

Riopelle’s rootsy blend of rock was soulful and rugged, wrapped in a country sound, with blues and jazz styles in the mix. His voice was smooth, with a depth that kept it a little edgy. And the whole package was filled with plenty of groovy riffs and dips to hold listeners in its grip.

When his Saving Grace record came out in 1974, Bill Compton, program director at the Arizona radio station KDKB, couldn’t get enough of Riopelle’s third release. Getting tunes from that album into a heavy rotation is what helped Riopelle’s loyal local fan base sprout and grow like a weed.

Concert promoter Danny Zelisko first met Riopelle when he stopped in Phoenix as part of a press junket promoting Saving Grace, and the two forged a friendship from that point. “We hit it off right away,” he recalls. “I just loved him, and we got to be fast friends."

Zelisko credits KDKB for facilitating Riopelle’s career, as he eschews the way mainstream radio has since become watered down. He is thrilled that the radio play the rocker got in Arizona gave him such a firm hold here, citing that of course Riopelle’s songs and charisma made those initial impressions long lasting. “His fame here has continued to this day,” Zelisko says. “It’s 50 years later, and he’s had no airplay or visibility, yet we had two sold-out shows planned and could have easily sold out more nights.”

Legendary Arizona DJ and music collector and historian John Dixon joins Zelisko in mourning. “I’m still numb about his sudden passing," Dixon says. “Jerry loved his fans and leaves us a long list of songs that mean so much to everyone, especially now that he’s left us.” He notes the importance of those that made Riopelle an Arizona musical fixture. “Thank you, Bill Compton and KDKB, and Doug Clark at the Celebrity Theatre for turning us on to this amazing talent so many years ago. His memory burns brightly.”

Dixon and Zelisko were both so excited for the upcoming shows and stated that Riopelle was just as jazzed for the two-night stint. “We are all just disappointed that he didn’t get to do his final shows, as he wanted to do badly,” Dixon says.
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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young