Island profile: Ferryman who has gigged from Alaska to LA

PETER BOODY PHOTO |  Dennis Raffelock at home with a bass he’s been playing since his Westbury High School days in the early 1960s.

Dennis Raffelock at home with a bass he’s been playing since his Westbury High School days in the early 1960s.

“This story give me the chills,” Shelter Island’s resident bass player, jazz vocalist and North Ferry Captain Dennis Raffelock said as he recalled how fate had kept him out of the Vietnam War.

He was a part-time student  at Nassau Community College and musician, playing bass with duos and trios at clubs and private parties when he got a draft notice in 1966.

He thought he’d preempt his induction by visiting an Army recruiting office, where he asked, “Can I play music in the Army?”
The answer was yes, but only if he could win admission to the Army band program and do well enough to earn an assignment.

Adept at the tuba from his years in the Westbury school band, and having played bass for hire every Saturday night since he was a six-foot-tall 13-year-old in 1960, “I had the confidence in my musicianship” to try, Dennis said.

He did well in his tuba audition and went to the U.S. Naval School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia, where recruits from all the military branches trained. To avoid having to spend too many hours in required practices, which would have ruined his weekend escapes back to Westbury, Dennis never revealed to the brass that he played bass.

His last week at school, still unassigned, he was waiting in line to sign up for a practice room. By the time it was his turn, “for the first time ever,” he said, all the rooms had been taken.

With no idea what to do with himself, he walked around the school building. On the third floor, where he’d never been before, he spotted an office with a sign that read, “First Sergeant In Charge of Orders.”

“I knocked on the door and told him I’m Specialist E3 Raffelock and I’m going to graduate next week and I’m unassigned. Are there any openings in the States for a tuba player or a bass player?’”

“I didn’t know you played bass!” Dennis recalled the amazed sergeant saying. “I just got off the phone with the C.O. in Fort Sill, Oklahoma with the 97th Army Band. He’s losing a bass player and needs one fast.”

Soon Dennis found himself in Lawton, Oklahoma, where the C.O. ran his own band on the side doing weddings, country clubs and private parties.

“He saw me and said, ‘Are you the bass player? Go over to that closet and pick out one of those green jackets. We have a gig tonight.’”

Sure enough, before he’d left Norfolk, the call had come in for a tuba player to go to Vietnam. “If it hadn’t been for that divine intervention, I would have gone there,” Dennis said.

“I’m protected and guided. It’s obvious to me,” he said.

In the early 1970s, playing in Montreal — both his brothers ended up in Canada, one to avoid the draft and the other “I’m not sure why” — Dennis one day realized “that my voice became an instrument. I envisioned my voice coming out of my third eye. I was a singer!”

He, his younger brother and his younger brother’s girlfriend drove Dennis’s VW microbus out to California. After picking up hitchhikers on the Pacific Coast Highway, they got lost in the fog one night. Dennis couldn’t see a thing and wanted to stop.

Just then, one of the hitchhikers somehow recognized a road they were passing. “There’s a commune up there where we can spend the night,” the rider announced.

“When we parked,” Dennis said, “it was so foggy I could only see the person ahead of me by the glow of his cigarette. In the morning, we woke up to find we were on this rich guy’s 400 acres with no electricity and no plumbing.”

He took his guitar, went out to the garden and played, “Here Comes the Sun.” As if by magic, the fog broke and sunshine poured down.

After that, “People came over to me and said, ‘You can stay here if you want.’”

He lived there for two months and then took an apartment in nearby Santa Cruz, where he worked as a musician for more than eight years, putting together his first Dennis Raffelock Trio in 1976 and studying music on the GI Bill at Cabrillo College, where he was in the concert band, the jazz ensemble, the chorale, the chamber singers and the orchestra.

Except for a brief foray into rock early in his post-Army career, Dennis has always preferred the music of the Big Bands and the Great American Songbook. “They’re wonderful songs, beautiful melodies, wonderful words, wonderful lyrics.”

His next stop was LA, where his brother was living and Dennis had found a spiritual teacher in MSIA, the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. Over more than four years, he played with different groups and at such venues as the Beverly Hilton, the Beverly Wiltshire and the Bel Air Sands. He got to know Bing Crosby’s daughter Mary and played at her wedding.
When the gigs got thin one winter, “I started praying. ‘God, I feel like I’m sitting on a fence. I need some kind of direction.’ The message came to me: find a job on a cruise ship.”

He did, running between Mexico and LA and later San Pedro and Acapulco. The Princess line sent him east to work in the Caribbean and, after that, he worked for another line cruising from San Francisco to Alaska.

Settling down again in LA, he landed a job singing “all those wonderful Bob Eberly Big Band tunes” with Bill Davies and the 1939 Orchestra; he also worked with a trio called Mood Indigo, which made a cameo appearance in the 1984 Goldie Hawn movie, “Swing Shift.”

When his dad Abe died in 1984 and his mom Ethel needed company, Dennis — the only unmarried brother — returned to Westbury, got his real estate and mortgage broker licenses and took over his father’s real estate office.

At a local club, he met his future wife, Debbie, whose ex-husband had introduced her to Shelter Island. She and Dennis spent weekends here at Kraus’s, where they saw a sign advertising a house for sale. They bought it.

When his mom moved to Florida, he and Debbie made their own move, buying a bigger place. They married in 1991. Dennis made a living brokering mortgages from home, which was tough. In 2003, Bridg Hunt told Dennis he was looking for help at North Ferry and Dennis — with no more boating experience than his cruise ship gigs— asked for a job. The next day he was working the deck and a few years later he earned his captain’s license.

Debbie now lives upstate, close to their son Daniel, who lives in Pathfinder Village, a planned community for people with Down’s syndrome. Son David is in Boulder, Colorado, “working and going to school,” Dennis said.

He recently met “the absolute love of my life,” a woman from East Hampton. Dennis has two steady restaurant gigs: Danford’s in Port Jefferson every Saturday night and Fresh Hamptons in Bridgehampton Sunday afternoons. Come summer, he’ll be at the Pridwin every Tuesday from 7 to 10 p.m.

He has released two CDs: “So Many Ways” 14 years ago and last summer’s “I Thought About You.” He has “not put it out there” because he wants to market it with two more he’s finishing now: “Rock Solid Velvety Smooth” with the Dennis Raffelock Trio and “There Is No Greater Love,” with master pianist Tedd Firth.

“Oh, ready for this? Last summer this guy got a  hold of my CD. He told me, ‘I love your CD; I listen every day. I want to do a documentary on you.’”

For two days in January, the Brooklyn-based filmmaker and his partner came out to video Dennis working on the ferry, performing in Port Jeff and Bridgehampton, and in two interviews. “These guys are legit. They recently did a documentary” on the music scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Dennis said, adding he expected the film to come out late this year.

“I feel this is going to be a great year,” Dennis said. One of its high points promises to be a single CD he plans to release called “The Shelter Island Shuffle.”

You broke up with your mate or the landlord’s coming back,
Got fired from your job so get your suitcase and pack
And do the Shelter Island shuffle, do the Shelter Island shuffle.
You better grab a mop and broom as you’re shufflin’ from room to room.