This Kid Can Play the Blues

From Harman to T-Birds, Ramos swings

Just look at that picture, would ya? We won't even comment on the biceps because, good God, I'd run and hide in a corner from the threat of that hair alone—you could get vertigo just from looking at it. Why in the world is this man scowling like his daughter just brought Dennis Rodman home for dinner?

The truth of the matter is that local blues guitarist KID RAMOS is about the sweetest-tempered guy you're ever gonna meet (and you can meet him on Sunday, when he does an in-store appearance at the Virgin Megastore in Costa Mesa). Maybe a publicist told him to grimace like a grouper to cop an image. Maybe the photographer had just emitted a lethal air biscuit. Who knows? But this man has much to smile about because his new, self-titled album on Evidence Records adds a whole new chapter to the greater glory of OC's blues scene.

David Ramos was born 40 years ago in Fullerton and grew up in Anaheim. "My parents were opera singers, so there was always music in the house," he says. "My dad also played guitar. Music always seemed like the easiest thing to gravitate toward. I had an older brother who was into buying records, so I'd listen to whatever he brought home: the Beatles, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, anything that was happening in the '70s. It was all music. But when I started playing guitar [at age 14], I started getting more into the Allman Brothers and stuff like that because that was blues. I was always into reading books about music, and I'd go to the library at school and get Guitar Player magazine, and I figured out who these guys had been listening to—T-Bone Walker and stuff like that. When I picked up [B.B. King's] Live at the Regal, that was a major turning point for me. To this day, I still listen to that record. It's been on the road with me for years."

In 1980, Ramos joined the Huntington Beach-based but nationally recognized James Harman Band, where he stayed until 1988. Many fans consider that lineup of the group—singer/songwriter/harpist Harman, Ramos, guitarist Hollywood Fats, bassist Willie J. Campbell and drummer Stephen Hodges (affectionately nicknamed "Those Dangerous Gentlemens," presumably due to all the biceps and hair)—to be the classic version of the Harman crew. With its stellar musicianship, greasy style, and rock & roll energy levels, the Harman Band transcended the blues scene and could be seen on bills with rock stars like Los Lobos, the Blasters and the Plimsouls back in the day. But it was always blues that drove the group, and Ramos credits Harman for giving him a musical education when he was just a young Kid.

"James is a different kind of cat. People either love him or hate him—and he's a walking encyclopedia of different blues styles," says Ramos. "The guy started collecting records when he was in grade school in the '50s. His record collection is amazing. So we'd have these great parties at his house and just listen to these old records. I wasn't aware of all that stuff. I was 21 or 22 years old. He'd pull out all of these different styles—some Backbeat Records stuff, some O.V. Wright, all this jump stuff, soul stuff, country blues. . . . He'd make me tapes, and I'd go home and try to absorb as much as I could to sound exactly like them. Those were my formative years. And then being around Fats—he was another guy who was like a blues encyclopedia. I was a fan of it all, so I tried to cop whatever I could off the records. I'm a fan of the music before anything."

After seven years with Harman, Ramos was burned-out on the incessant touring and retired for a spell (although he managed to record an underpromoted/underdistributed album for Black Top along the way). "I got tired of going on the road. I got married, had two kids and decided to have a life for a while," he says. Some life: Ramos got a job with a water-delivery company, which didn't hurt his biceps one bit.

In 1995, he got a call to join the Fabulous Thunderbirds, where he's been guitar slinging ever since. Ironically, this lineup of the Thunderbirds features Kid, Campbell, pianist Gene Taylor and drummer Richard Innes—an all-Harman Band alumni lineup, save for T-Birds founder Kim Wilson.

But enough with all the history lessons; Ramos' new album may be the best work he's ever laid down. All of the old Harman/T-Birds gang is on hand (the first time Those Dangerous Gentlemens have played together in more than 10 years), along with a slew of other guests like Los Lobos singer/guitarist Cesar Rosas, OC singer/guitarist Lynwood Slim, former Chambers Brothers singer Willie Chambers, singer Janiva Magness and saxophonist Jeff Turmes.

Their contributions go a long way toward making the album a glorious success, but it's the Kid's moment, and he shines brightly, serving up a veritable clinic on various blues-guitar styles. "Dead Love" is a sleazy, horn-driven slow grind, with Ramos strangling out Albert King-like riffs. "No More Alcohol" recalls the distorted, hyperactive work of Pat Hare. "Leave Me Alone" is a jazzy bounce wherein Ramos plays George Benson-slick. Harman's "Walk-Around Telephone Blues" features the Delta style of Jimmie Rogers. "Open up Your Heart" is a tremolo-and-reverb-drenched journey into the realm of early Buddy Guy. "Cold Chicken and Beer" is a dead ringer for Albert Collins. "Fiddle De Dee" features primal bottleneck work à la Elmore James. A swinging, jazzed-up take on "Bandstand Boogie" features bouncy phrasing on the order of T-Bone Walker. Ramos even makes a surprisingly adept vocal debut on the album-closing "I Would Be a Sinner," making you wonder why he doesn't do more singing (well, working with the likes of the superskilled Harman and Wilson could discourage anyone, I suppose).

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