O.C.'s Kid Ramos keeps the blues real
O.C.'s Kid Ramos keeps the blues real
As a teenager in the '70s, David Ramos listened to all the big groups of the day, acts such as the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. Great stuff, but it always left him wanting more, a stronger dose of what inspired those rock 'n' roll bands.
"I was always like, 'There's something about the blues,'" says Ramos, sitting on the covered patio outside his Anaheim home. "It was almost like a mission I was on. I knew I was just scratching the surface."
Over time, Ramos dug deep, teaching himself the history of the blues, learning how to play the music on his guitar by playing his LPs over and over again in his bedroom after school.
He took on a guitar slinger's name, Kid Ramos, and built a career for himself in groups such as the James Harman Band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and today, Los Fabulocos, whose second album arrived earlier this month.
But we'll get to all of that soon enough. Right now let's drop the needle into the first groove in the story of Ramos' life, and find out how a kid from Anaheim grew up to be a Kid on the road with the blues.
* * *
As Ramos talks, in the distance you can hear the distant murmur of teenagers at play on the fields of Anaheim High School, the same school where as a 14-year-old his musical education took off, one lunch period at a time.
"At lunch I would go into the library and read Guitar Player magazine, learning about guys like Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers," says Ramos. "And they'd all be saying, 'Freddy King, T-Bone Walker,' and I thought, 'Who are these people?'"
So he dug deeper, flipping through the bins at a nearby Licorice Pizza record store after school, then later, after getting his license and the keys to the car, driving to the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach to see legendary bluesmen such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Freddy King and Mike Bloomfield.
"I would get in and I'd sit there and see all these great cats," Ramos says. "To see somebody, instead of just listening to a record, it's different. To see these big guys up there sweating and singing, it made a big impression on me."
His mother Dolores was musical, an opera singer and a performer at the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland when Ramos was young. It was his stepfather George, though, himself a professional opera singer and a singing bartender as well, who taught Ramos his first chords on the guitar and encouraged him to pursue the instrument as his natural talent started to emerge.
"It kind of started there and I was just driven," Ramos says.
He bought his first guitar, a nylon-stringed Valencia, for five bucks from a friend. On lunch breaks from working at his stepfather's gas station he'd walk to the pawnshops in Anaheim's old downtown and look longingly on the electric guitars in the windows, finally saving up $37.50 to buy a Kay electric.
"I had scabs on my fingers trying to play the thing," he says of the Kay, whose strings were so high above the frets it was almost impossible to play. "About that time, my stepdad said, 'You know, you look like you're pretty serious about this. If you want to take some lessons I'll pay for them."
The teacher got Ramos to buy a Gibson Melody Maker – $75, Ramos notes, with a guitar player's sharp memory for beloved instruments of the past – which played so much easier and helped his skills to develop even faster.
In his bedroom, he studied classic albums, such as B.B. King's "Live at the Regal," putting the needle down, trying to play the lick, taking the needle off and putting it back down again.
"That's how I learned to play," Ramos says. "I wore the records out – drove my brother crazy, too."
Still a teenager, Ramos started playing house parties with this band or that, learning more with each gig. And then a friend, Steve Soest, who owned a guitar in Orange just down the street from the amp shop run by X guitarist Billy Zoom, told him about another guy who loved the blues as much as Ramos and knew the blues even more.
"He said, 'Hey, you've got to meet James Harman, he's into the same kind of music you are.' And he said to James, 'Hey, there's this kid ... .'"
* * *
"Here was a guy who was a record collector," Ramos says of Harman, who lived in Huntington Beach at the time. ""He had a room in his house, the whole room was filled with records, floor to ceiling. And he took me under his wing and would say, 'Come down to my house and listen to records.'
"He'd been a record producer, and John Doe and Exene (of X), Top Jimmy, who's dead now, all of the Blasters, we'd just have record parties."
By the end of the night, Ramos remembers only the hardcore listeners were left in the record room, staring at the turntable in an almost religious trance, listening to old out-of-print stuff that nobody else had.
Harman eventually invited Ramos to join his band, which played old-school blues but at the time – 1978 and '79 – found its home in the emerging L.A. punk scene, seeing several members leave to form the Blasters, playing clubs such as Madame Wong's, and opening for bands such as X and Oingo Boingo.
For seven years Ramos toured and recorded with the Harman band, then he decided to step off the merry-go-round of the professional musician's life and try to settle down back home in Orange County.
"I met my wife (Linda)," he says. "I wanted to have a family. So I just decided, "I'm going to get off the road. I'm going to make a change in my life."
So what does a guy whose most marketable talents involve six strings and eight bars do when he unplugs the amp? A little handyman work, a bit of tile installation, and finally, three years on an Arrowhead Water delivery route.
It was good in its stability, Ramos says. He and Linda had a son, Anthony, and he loved being home to see his little boy learn to walk and talk. But the blues that filled his soul as a teenager never left him, so when Kim Wilson of the well-known Fabulous Thunderbirds blues band called him up and invited him to fly out to the famed Bearsville Sound Studios in upstate New York to sit in on their next album, "Roll of the Dice," and after that to join the band, he had a choice to make.
"My first son was bout 2 years old and I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to miss that part of him growing up," Ramos says. "I talked it over with my wife, and she said, 'If you don't do it you're going to regret it,' which was true."
So he signed on, and the first year played 300 dates with the Thunderbirds, home for a few days, gone for four months, meeting and playing with some of his boyhood heroes, too.
"I'm playing and Dickie Betts (of the Allmans) is on the side of the stage watching," he remembers. "Same thing with Carlos Santana (who) after I got done playing came over and hugged me and said, 'You really play from the heart.'"
Just as with Harman, Ramos lasted seven years before the pull of his family, which now included another son, Johnny, brought him back to Orange County.
"I thought, 'My kids are going to grow up and I'm never going to get this time back.' It was one of those decisions where if you do any kind of soul-searching you know what the right thing to do is."
* * *
Since coming home in the mid-2000s, Ramos has worked for his cousin's large corporate landscaping firm as an account manager, overseeing commercial clients and homeowners associations who contract with the company. On vacations, he travels to Europe to play blues festivals, and then a few years ago, joined a new band, Los Fabulocos, which blends the blues, Tex-Mex, country and rock into their own kind of vibe.
"Everybody in the band has their own influences," Ramos says of band mates Jesse "Jesus" Cuevas, Mike Molina and James Barrios, several of whom are veterans of the Blazers, a well-known roots rock band from East L.A. "You bring it together and you make a gumbo."
The guys all have day jobs and families, but play shows when they can, have traveled as far as Germany and Norway to play festivals, and have just released their second album, "Dos," on the Delta Groove blues label.
Still in the back of his mind is the dream that a day will come again when music is his fulltime work once more, maybe after his sons are fully grown and he can focus on the band or his solo work.
"If I was in a heavy metal band and I had to wear spandex pants at 65 I might start to feel a little old at it," he says, laughing. "But in blues you can age gracefully. A lot of my heroes have played right up until they've died."
The blues still speak to his heart, he says, in a way no other music can, describing the story of Howlin' Wolf's "Mama Died and Left Me" as an example of what the music makes him feel.
"This guy is singing about real life, some real hard things!" Ramos says. "It's not like he's singing about driving around the corner to see his girl.
"Everybody has trials and tribulations in life. The music is like a celebration that you're going to get through it."
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