Ragbaby Stephens

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1918 Photo of Ragbaby Stevens

Joe Stephens (March 3, 1887 – c. 1927), generally known as Ragbaby Stephens, was an early New Orleans dixieland and jazz drummer. (His family name has appeared in print both as Stephens and Stevens, although the family themselves spelled it with the "ph"). He was the 13th and last child of Philip Stephens (1841–1906) and his wife Catherine Kolb (1843–1913), both natives of Baden-Baden. A number of the Stephens family descendants were professional musicians or band members.

Stephens was of the best regarded hot drummers with Papa Jack Laine's Reliance band in New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century. He left town to get away from personal problems, and became one of the first New Orleans jazz musicians established in Chicago. His telegrams home were responsible for bringing Paul Mares and George Brunies up north. For some years he worked with banjoist/ bandleader Bert Kelly.

In 1918 Kelly brought his "Jass Band", including Stephens, Alcide Nunez, and Tom Brown to New York City to fill in for the Original Dixieland Jass Band at Reisenweber's Cafe. The Kelly band enjoyed success, and was hired to continue playing, alternating with the Original Dixieland, after that band's return to New York. After the Kelly Jazz Band won greater approval from the crowds at a "Battle of the Bands" Stephens found his drum head's slashed, and he took the next train back to Chicago and never again headed east.

Stephens was a regular on the Chicago jazz scene into the 1920s; early in the decade he was reunited with clarinetist Alcide Nunez playing in the house band at the noted jazz venue (and speakeasy) Kelly's Stables.

Eddie Edwards recalled Stephens "was a magnificent drummer... He inspired you."

His son Joseph Jr. (1909–1974) played jazz at Roma's Cafe in New Orleans, and his grandson Joseph E. Stephens (1929–2004) was also a musician. Both are buried in New Orleans, Joe Jr. at St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery No. 2 and Joe E. at Jefferson Memorial Gardens.