Having grown up in a musical household - both parents were opera singers - David 'Kid' Ramos caught the blues bug in his early teens. With his older brother's record collection providing a jumping-off point, his relentless curiosity ultimately led him to B. B. King's "Live At The Regal." At that point, one might say, the die was cast.
He bought his first guitar - an acoustic with nylon strings - at the tender age of fourteen. Quickly realizing it wasn't exactly a bluesman's instrument of choice, he began hanging around pawnshops, searching 'til he found an electric guitar he could afford. "It was a Kay," he remembers, "with the strings so high it made my fingers bleed!"
His career as a professional musician began when he landed a job with James Harman. James was only too happy to share both his encyclopedic knowledge and vast library of obscure recordings. That, combined with the challenge of working with the late, great Hollywood Fats (the Harman band at the time featuring a dual lead guitar attack) helped the young and eager Kid to establish a solid foundation for all things blue.
Kid subsequently worked with Rod Piazza before leaving the music business altogether as the demands of family life took their toll. He took a job delivering bottled water, but one day realized that "this water looks just like the water I delivered yesterday!" With his wife's encouragement he resumed his musical career, working sporadically with Lynwood Slim and perennial stalwarts Roomful Of Blues before taking over guitar duties for the Fabulous Thunderbirds - the band, ironically, that first inspired him to pursue a career in blues. He's still very much with the T-Birds, but somehow manages to find time for an active solo career.
Kid's third outing as leader, the aptly named "West Coast House Party," was released to unanimous critical acclaim in the summer of 2000. It's a musical grab bag of jump/swing blues stylings, with a who's who of the California blues scene lending support.
"I wanted to make the definitive west-coast jump blues guitar record," says Kid, who also produced the project. "It was fun. We did it all in two days. I just invited everyone I wanted to work with." Once the tape started rolling, Kid says "it was just like a big party!"
Some party - the disc's credits list a total of twenty participants! Asked about the logistical nightmare of coordinating schedules, Kid laughs. "I actually had a third day of studio time booked in case, but figured two days ought to be enough." He prefers working quickly, though. "I get my best solos on the first take," he claims. "After that I'm thinking too much."
Despite the revolving line-up, there's a cohesive feel to the project. Kid's quick to give credit to all concerned, both for professionalism and for their musical abilities. "These are all top-notch players who know this stuff inside and out," he says. "If they didn't, I don't think we'd have been able to pull it off."
How, then, did the guest list come about? Kid says the songs came first. "I went through a lot of vinyl to select the kind of songs I wanted to do. Then I started to think about who would fit in, who'd be best suited to the material." But though it's his project, Kid limited himself to determining the stylistic direction. "It was pretty loose, really" he explains. "As everyone arrived, I just asked 'em what they wanted to do."
Many of the players are old friends. Kid's old boss, James Harman, contributes his inimitable sly vocals on his own "One Mo' Peep." Duke Robillard, himself virtually a one-man swing revival, was happy to join in. (Kid was Duke's replacement when the latter left the T-birds). Duke appears on three tracks along with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown; Kid met Gate when the T-Birds toured with him, and the two became fast friends. The three trade licks on the opener, T-Bone Walker's "Strollin' With Bone (Part One)," which they reprise again as "Part Two" to bring the party to a close.
Big Sandy has been a friend for many years, as has James Intveld - who's not generally known as a blues singer. "He's one of those guys who can sing anything," says Kid. "He's just a very soulful guy no matter what he's doing." James' vocal contribution on the Roy Brown classic "Love Don't Love Nobody" is a highlight. Up-and-comer Rusty Zinn contributes both sizzling guitar and his own unique vocal stylings on a pair. Lynwood Slim dropped by to sing a couple of tracks; Charlie Baty (of Little Charlie And The Nightcats) appears on two, joined on Rick Holmstrom's clever "One Bar Short" by Rick himself. Fellow T-Bird Kim Wilson sings two and contributes the only harp on the disc, as he, Kid, and drummer Stephen Hodges get nasty on a stripped-down cover of the Smiley Lewis chestnut, "Real Gone Lover." Janiva Magness, who's appeared on both of Kid's previous outings, smoulders through a lusty rendition of Buddy Johnson's "Bring It Home To Me." And Junior Watson - along with Kid, perhaps the quintessential California-style player (Kid calls Junior and Charlie the 'mad scientists of the guitar'), takes an all-too-rare turn at the mike on the tune that pretty well sums things up - Amos Milburn's "House Party Tonight."
Many players would find it intimidating to be surrounded by such an awesome array of talent. Kid, though, has a relaxed attitude to it all. "It was more of a peer thing," he says, "a matter of mutual respect. I'm a fan of all these guys, but I'm also lucky enough to count them as my friends. So it wasn't a contest or a race to the finish - it was a chance to work together and enjoy the process."
And Kid has no problem in laying back and giving others the chance to step up front. "The song is everything," he says. "Support is an art in itself. The guitar has to contribute something to the song."
There's a vast difference, he continues, between a live performance and a recording. "When you play live, you're putting on a show. You're feeding off the energy of the audience, and everything you do is of the moment. So sure, I'll often play a lot more on stage. A recording, though, is different. You're trying to tell a story that will have to stand the test of time."
And just what is it that makes a great guitar solo? "Ninety percent of it is tone," says the man who's virtually synonymous with that thick, vintage guitar sound. "Get the tone right and it inspires you to play a certain way. It forces you to play lyrically, to tell a story. But it absolutely has to swing."
Ah, swing. It's one of those intangibles . . . everyone knows it when they hear it, but where, pray tell, does it come from? Kid claims it all begins with the rhythm section. "If they don't swing, everything else falls on its face," he says. And it would be hard to imagine a tighter rhythm section that the venerable duo of drummer Steven Hodges and Larry Taylor on bass, augmented by Fred Kaplan's piano work. "Yeah, these are the guys," says Kid.
It wouldn't be west-coast swing, though, without a driving horn section. Enter Jeff Turmes, who contributes baritone sax and did all the horn arrangements. "Jeff's the greatest," says Kid. "He's got that greasy sound. It's a blues thing - it doesn't come from jazz at all." Kid admits that he's not really into jazz. "The guys I listen to are the ones who aren't really doing jazz - cats like Illinois Jacquette. What they're doing is really blues - they're sort of a missing link between the two."
And what is it about blues that gets to Kid . . . why is he giving his life to a form of music that, truth be told, is marginal in an age of pop and hip hop? "There's something about it that's universal," he says, "you hear it and immediately identify with it. You can go all over the world and there will always be people who love blues because it's real. It transcends age and race and economics."
But hasn't it all been done before? "Not at all," he replies. "If you listen to classical music, Bach is always going to sound like Bach. But with blues it's all about interpretation. You have to respect it, sure, hang onto some of the tradition. But you also have to put your own stamp on it. Otherwise there's just no point to it all."
And what does he think of being an influence himself? "Well, I don't know if I've sold enough records to be called much of an influence," he laughs. "The important thing is not to limit yourself. I see so many kids nowadays who think it all begins and ends with guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan or the Allman Brothers. That's fine, to a point. But that shouldn't be the end of it. Do some research. Find out where they got it, see how they made it their own. Then go out and make it your own."
Kid himself feels that he hasn't even scratched the surface yet. "There's still so much more to accomplish," he says. Ever restless, he's not one to look back, nor is he content to rest on his laurels. "The last one's done. It's time to move on," he says, adding that he's hoping his next project will be similar in approach but will feature some of the harmonica players he's worked with over the years.
Given that the list includes such harp heavies as Kim Wilson, James Harman, Rod Piazza, and Lynwood Slim, that one's definitely something to look forward to!
This review is copyright © 2001 by John Taylor, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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