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Remembering Ross Raleigh, Founder of Southgate House

Friends, family, well-wishers, and a grateful music community gathered Monday night to remember and celebrate the life of Ross Raleigh, the founder of the original Southgate House, as well as the Southgate House Revival, in Newport.

Raleigh passed away on June 7 at the age of 74. He leaves behind a diverse life and storied legacy. He had a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Kentucky, as well as a master’s degree in philosophy from Xavier University. He was an avid art collector, a student of history, and a Past Master of The Robert Burns Lodge #163. He was a retired inspector from the Northern Kentucky Health Department.

Going Home

“It was like Ross’s Clubhouse,” said local musician Edwin Vardiman, of the early days of performing at the Southgate House. “He preferred informality and wanted to know everyone on a personal basis.”

In addition to owning the Southgate House, Raleigh owned a number of apartments in Newport, often renting to musicians, employees, and artists, always willing to work with his tenants if rent was late.

Local musician Ric Hickey remembered every time he would play in Raleigh’s club, whether it be on the main stage opening for a national act, or a few sets in the lounge on a weeknight, Raleigh always had something warm and genuine to say, whether he had seen you just last week or had not seen you since last year.

“He was very receptive to a wide variety of music,” said singer-songwriter Maurice Mattei. “(Raleigh) wasn’t pretentious.”

“Ross was the pinnacle of cool,” Hickey said.

As a club owner, Raleigh seemed to value the authentic over the popular. “Ross would prefer you to be interesting and unique,” according to Vardiman, emphasizing that Raleigh would take a genuine interest in the many bands and artists that would play his club. “Ross was family,” and going to the Southgate House, Vardiman says, “was just going home.”

Like Walking with Elvis

“He knew everybody,” says Vardiman, often impressed by Raleigh’s seeming unending ability to be on a first-name basis with everyone he met.

Raleigh’s affability and laid-back nature was evident in every aspect of his life. John Madden, owner of JBM Promotions, a long-time friend and colleague of Raleigh’s recalled person after person stopping to talk to Raleigh during a quick walk to get lunch. “Walking down the street in Newport with Ross was like walking with Elvis.”

“Ross is a legend,” said Courtney Phenicie, editor in chief of CincyMusic. “The local music scene would not be where it is today without his impact.”

Madden’s JBM Promotions, then a fledgling idea known as Magus Productions, was on the brink of being abandoned before a meeting with Raleigh. Soon Madden was promoting shows in the Southgate House, many appealing to older crowds with earlier showtimes, seating instead of an open floor, and often even nonsmoking policies. “Believe it or not, that was a radical idea 25 years ago and Ross changed all that,” Madden said.

“It is a fact that he broke the mold on how we in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky look at our music community,” said Phenicie.

We Always Felt Better After We Talked to Him

After the original location of the Southgate House on Third Street in Newport was forced to close, Raleigh and his daughter Morella, with whom he operated the club, set out to look for a new home for Raleigh’s vision. After searching every available building in the region, Raleigh was inspired to look at an old church sitting empty just blocks away on Sixth Street. “There were many financial reasons not to buy this building,” Vardiman said at the celebration. But if this or any other of the plethora of stresses of owning a business got to Raleigh, he never showed it. He was known for his calm and cool demeanor, always remaining above the drama, and finding a way to calm everyone else down around him.

“We always felt better after we talked to him,” said Vardiman.

Perhaps it is fitting that this celebration of life was held in a converted church. Tables were set with a potluck-style dinner while brothers and sisters in this extended family broke bread and shared fellowship. Local musicians gathered and sang old hymns, friends laughed, family cried. The Southgate House Revival will continue in the capable hands of Morella Raleigh. The doors will be open, the drinks will pour, the music will keep playing, and the many members of our local music family will continue to have a home.

Ross would have wanted it that way.

Written by Brandon Wheeler, RCN contributor