Mystery Man

Who is Ralph Gean, and why is he the latest hero of Denver's musical underground?

In 1964, at around the same time as his music career took a downturn, Gean married Sadie Onetta Slaughter, a young woman he met at a dance in Pasadena, Texas. Because he now had to take care of someone other than himself, Gean did whatever he could to make ends meet--short-order cook, cafeteria manager trainee and so on. In search of better prospects, the couple headed to Idaho in 1967 and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As Gean puts it, he and Sadie were "remarried for time and all eternity" in a Mormon ceremony. Two weeks later, Evangelynn Rosalie, the first of four children he had with Sadie, was born.

The pressure was on Gean to provide for his family, but the best he could manage was another series of odd jobs. "I was a TV repairman's assistant, I worked digging foundations for patios, and I laid seismograph wires for oil exploration out in rattlesnake country," he says. "I'd get so hot and tired out there that I'd find myself hoping a rattlesnake would bite me, just so I could get some rest." Later, he returned to Texas, where he earned enough money selling Procter & Gamble soap samples to afford to relocate his brood to Salt Lake City. But Utah's capital didn't prove to be the land of milk and honey for Gean. Though he was employed for a while as a laundry attendant, he eventually wound up on the welfare rolls.

During this difficult period, Gean found himself missing music more than ever. While he was receiving a regular paycheck, he made occasional forays to Las Vegas to see his hero, Presley, live on stage: "He shook my hand once," he recounts, "and when we touched, I had an odd, elated feeling, like an electric shock. I'd like to think that at that moment, he transferred just a little bit of his power to me." When Gean was on the dole, though, he had to satisfy his creative urges by making cassette recordings of new songs and old. His personal life certainly gave him plenty to write about, for by the early Seventies, he had become involved with a fundamentalist Mormon sect led by Rulin Allred that had splintered off from the main church. And one of the fundamentals Allred's followers believed in was polygamy.

"It was very controversial, and it confuses a lot of people," Gean allows. "Bigamy is when a guy is married to several different gals who don't know about each other. But polygamy is where everybody knows about it and accepts it. And I believed in that idea at that time. I'd like to think that if I'd stuck with it, I'd have had a minimum of eight wives."

As it turned out, Gean had two--Sadie and the former Ruth Evans, whom he met at a workshop that he was required to attend in order to receive welfare benefits. The three were united in a ceremony at Allred's Murray, Utah, office and lived in a polygamous relationship from 1974 to the spring of 1976. But despite the initial commitment of all parties to the concept, the situation quickly deteriorated.

"We started out in the same house, but things got worse and worse," Gean concedes. "So we moved out to the country, but that didn't last, either--one wanted to stay in the country, and the other one wanted to stay in town. So then we moved back to Salt Lake into the same apartment building. One was in an apartment upstairs, the other one was in an apartment downstairs, and I was spending three days with each of them. And that's really a crazy way to live."

Sadie agreed; she split from Gean, taking Evangelynn and her siblings (Melissa, Ralph III and Charles) with her. As for Gean, he stayed with Ruth, who gave birth to a daughter, Spring, in 1976. But a year later, Allred was assassinated in his office by people associated with a rival Mormon splinter organization, the Church of the Lamb of God, headed by the late Ervil LeBaron. (LeBaron died in prison in 1981 while serving a sentence for his part in the Allred killing.) Like others associated with Allred, Ralph and Ruth were excommunicated by the LDS church but were told by members of church hierarchy that they could be reinstated if they went through a long-term process of repentance. This procedure was interrupted when Ruth decided to follow Sadie's example and leave Gean, too. "But I still hope to get back in good standing with the LDS church," says Gean, who adds that he now is on good terms with all of his children. "That's something that's really, really important to me."

With the collapse of his family situation, Gean went into a funk, drifting from Utah to Texas, where he was treated for depression in 1979. He was back in Salt Lake City the next year, living in a near-hovel with a friend whose nickname, Gean divulges with a chortle, was "Busted Rubber." The conditions were rough, but because he was on his own, Gean was able to return to his first love--music. He made his living for the next year and a half by playing his guitar on the streets of Salt Lake. "In a lot of ways, it was great," he says. "It tightened up my playing and really broadened my repertoire. And there were some really nice moments. One time, a guy liked me so much that he cashed his whole paycheck and gave it to me. Another guy gave me the jacket right off his back." More often, his payment came in coin form, "although some people tried to give me drugs. I'd have to tell them, 'I can't do that. Playing on the streets, I'm in enough trouble with the police as it is.'"

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