Described by some as the “Barnsey of the Barossa”, give this 57 year old a microphone and a band and he’ll belt out the tunes to get any crowd pumping.
But you needn’t give Ralph a sheet of music, he won’t be able to read it. Reality is, he doesn’t need it anyway. With his encyclopaedic repertoire of music lyrics filed away in his memory, there are few songs this Rowland Flat husband and father doesn’t know off by heart.
And for Ralph, heart is the key.
Everything is done with passion, from playing footy and hockey for Tanunda “back in the day” and hotting up classic cars; to family, community and business –Ralph is all in.
Born Raffaelo Leonardo Biagi in Kilwinning, Scotland in 1961, his name, in retrospect, proved integral to shaping a no-nonsense persona.
“At the end of 1962, Mum and Dad decided to come out to Australia, I was 18 months old, ”says Ralph.
Ralph remembers being surrounded by music as a young child, with everyone singing along to the piano or organ during family parties.
“The whole family has always been musical. Mum was a self taught musician, my grandpa played the piano and sang…Dad’s side all sang a bit… they were all into the arts.”
But life as a new Australian in the Barossa wasn’t ideal for this young school student.
“Being a migrant, school wasn’t easy. When I was in primary school you were Scottish or English, there was that 10 pound pom scenario,” he said.
“By the time I got to High School, Italians were out of favour and with a name like “Biagi” one minute I was a pom, the next minute I was a wog!
“Being Catholic in the Barossaalso had its challenges as a young fella trying to fit in.You were always on the back foot… you soon learned to stick up for yourself”.
He recalls the first day of high school when the class lists were read out. Reaching Ralph’s name, written in full, the deputy principal couldn’t pronounce it and laughter erupted among the 800 students at assembly.
“I just stood in the line and waited for two more names to be called out, I wasn’t going to move –then I walked off to my class.
“For whatever reason, my parents shortened my name to Ralph. Nowadays it would probably be Raf or Raffa and be really cool. But you sort of grow into your name or title… it’s me.”
Ralph’s first major stage appearance was in Year 8 at high school when he won the lead role in “Oliver”.
“I wasn’t going to audition because at that time it wasn’t cool to be singing at school,” he says. But thanks to a little bribery from his mother, Ralph soon changed his mind.
“Mum said if you get the role, I’ll buy you that drum kit you’ve always wanted. I thought that’s too good to pass up!”
Admitting to being mischievous at school, Ralph tells the story of hiding on a window sill behind the curtain during a class he disliked, only to be sprung by the deputy principal who saw him from outside.
Yet this cheeky student is proud to have started the school’s first rock band with his mates and excelled at all the subjects he enjoyed.
On weekends, Ralph played drums and sang backup with his sister and mother in a band called “RYE”.
“Ralph, Yvonne and Elizabeth,” he says with a laugh, adding how his father was “roped in” as the band’s roadie.
A 12 month gig playing at Dorrien’s Die Weinstube every weekend provided an ideal introduction to the music business.
“The first few gigs I could only play basic 4/4 time and a bit of waltz time. Whenever mum played a bossa nova… she’d hit the auto rhythm button and I’d sit there playing the maracas!”
The family band was eventually outgrown and more groups followed with different musicians coming and going over the years.
When “The Shift” finished – a group which had its heyday in the eighties playing in clubs and bars around Adelaide nearly every weekend – Ralph came out from behind the drums and “The Barking Ants” were born.
Ralph reveals “Bears without Ears” and “Atomic Tadpoles” were also among the mix of ideas for names at the time – they didn’t quite make the cut. Needless to say, they etched themselves into the hearts and minds of Barossans from the early nineties onwards, claiming a battle of the bands title and recording a single along the way.
Beyond his stage antics, Ralph has demonstrated his strong work ethic as a cellar hand, truck driver, barman and HiFi salesman but despite his busy lifestyle, Ralph found the love of his life in Annabel whom he married in 1985.
They still live in the house they bought in Rowland Flat.
“We were totally opposite types of people…. I was a bit of a rat bag I suppose and she was very quiet, studying to be a teacher. We were poles apart,” he says.
The couple had three children, Jarrod,Nicola and Ben but they were to experience unimaginable heartbreak after losing their eldest son, Jarrod in a vehicle crash ten years ago.
Emotions are still raw as memories of that tragic day flood back.
“It tests you, losing a child… it’s horrendous. But each day, the sun comes up,” he says, tears welling as he describes a beloved son who seemed to shadow his every footstep.
“The silly thing is we had very similar personalities… I’ve ended up restoring his VC Valiant, the one he started,” he says.
“I was very angry… you question everything. You’ve done what you believe to be right and you try and treat people right and when that happened you think what did I do to deserve this?”
Despite the heartache, there is a lesson Ralph believes he has learned from his son’s death.
“All those things that are really insignificant, the things you sometimes spend too much focus on – all of a sudden there’s a light bulb moment and you think … it’s not important.”
Ralph admits to reaching breaking point but the love of family pulled him through.
He sold his successful air conditioning business to concentrate on his sound and vision venture. Now son, Ben has joined him and together they continue to grow the business as they help make Barossa’s biggest events visual spectacles whilst capturing the essence of both professional and amateur musicians by weaving that Biagi magic from behind the sound mixing desk.
Ralph delights in seeing people succeed, particularly his children. Ben on the Tanunda footy field and by his side at work and Nicola, a singer, 2017 Barossa Young Ambassador and inaugural captain of the Central Districts SANFL women’s football team.
“Follow your passion and forget trying to impress other people. The only person you really have to impress is yourself.”
He also treasures that one constant in his life – Music. He says he’ll “rock on” as long as he keeps pulling a crowd, and he does. Ralph now plays for the next generation of “Barking Ants” fans and even he’s a little staggered by the fact, although he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“For that hour or couple of hours you’re on stage and the crowd’s with you. When it’s all happening and everyone’s playing together, its good. It’s a great feeling. It doesn’t matter how bad you feel…it always just lifts you,” Ralph explains.
“It’s funny, when you’re twenty, age doesn’t seem like a big deal, you think you have all those years in front of you. Once you get past fifty, you think where have those years gone? Who’s that old bloke in the mirror! Physically, you don’t feel like you did back then but mentally, the enjoyment factor doesn’t diminish – you still look forward to your next gig.”
And if he could give advice to his younger self, it would be this:
“Follow your passion and forget trying to impress other people. The only person you really have to impress is yourself…that’s a lesson that I took too long to learn.”