“I think that everybody approaches music how their personality is. It’s your personality you know. I’m an intense person, I’m a passionate person so when I play the guitar I attack the guitar because that’s just my personality. The music comes out of what’s in your soul. That’s what music is, it transcends everything. It transcends language and cultures and everything. It’s that language that speaks to people in a place that you can’t describe. That people hear somethin’ and they just react to it and it’s almost primal the way people react to it. It touches somethin’ in people that goes way back. And it’s hard to describe it but when you hear it you go ‘oh man.’ For me I heard music and I heard guitar and I went ‘that’s me that’s what I want to do, I can identify with that.’ So my personality comes out in it. I just like that approach of just attacking it and being passionate about it, have emotion in it. It doesn’t have to be all the perfect notes, it just has to have something that grabs you. That’s what music has to do for me, it has to move me, it has to say something. It has to touch that level where the words don’t do it. The right notes will come later, but you can’t teach the feeling.”
Kid Ramos is the raw, passionate guitar “id” of West Coast Blues. The “kid with the guitar,” as a teenager Ramos jumped with both feet into a creative artistic life that for his 62 years on the planet has led him with grit and determination to express his inner self through the beautiful ritual that is Blues music. Whether early on in the James Harman Band or the Fabulous Thunderbirds to more recent collaborations with the 44’s or the Proven Ones, Kid Ramos’ guitar is always a distinct unique voice adding gravity, spontaneity and heart to any music. A thoughtful and deeply reflective man, Kid is just as engaging in conversation as he is in guitar playing. Warm, funny but also deadly serious about his art, Kid has laser focus on his music, his relationships and most importantly his family. Famously taking almost a decade off from national touring, Ramos talks often about the family he took that time off to raise and bursts with pride as he talks about the musical bond he has with his son. In this his second Blues Blast interview, Kid generously spoke at length about his conception of music, the modern West Coast Blues scene that he helped to create and the powerful and joyful music he produces.
Kid Ramos is a Californian through and through. Ramos came up at just the right time to be influenced by and help shape the 70’s/80’s resurgence of the Blues.
“For me it’s a pilgrimage of discovery. For me as a teenager in Southern California I would go buy records. I’d go to the record store and look through the Blues bins and look through the Salvation Army and the thrift store and see what I could find record-wise. And then I had this place that was 15-20 miles from my house called the Golden Bear where I got to go see these guys. In a small club I got to see Freddie King, you know I got to see Albert King, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, I got to see all these guys, Mike Bloomfield. Anything that interests me I’d go see it, and I’d see it live. You didn’t have all these tapes to learn how to play guitar or videos or go online, learn how to do this, I mean you had to figure it out yourself, you know. So I would listen to the records and try to find it on the neck of the guitar. When I finally got to go see these guys then I went okay I can see now where that’s comin’ from.”
Barely just out of high school Kid became the guitar player in the premier Blues band in the Golden State, James Harman’s outfit. This band and the people on the scene at the time, including the legendary Hollywood Fats, created the modern West Coast Blues sound. As one of the founding fathers of this modern sound, Kid breaks down its origins and humbly his place in it.
“All the guys that came out here to the West Coast, to California, that had bands and stuff that came here, most of them came from Texas. T-Bone Walker is the definitive thing for the West Coast sound. The West Coast sound to me, is not like Chicago in those Jimmy Reed type shuffles with harmonica and stuff, it’s more slick and uptown with horns and maybe upright bass. The guitarist is playing some 9th chords and 13th chords, a little more sophisticated. Country Blues is where Chicago is related to, all the Delta stuff went to Chicago. Muddy Waters on Stovall’s Plantation he’s like the lineage of Robert Johnson or Son House you know. Then he comes to Chicago and discovers electricity. He puts that band together with Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, they all had their own bands. They took and made that music and there isn’t anything like it. I got to see Muddy Waters in the 70’s and see it up close and personal and listen to that, and that’s a specific thing. But when the guys like T-Bone came they were influenced by Big Band music. And then they come out here to California and put together these bands. And a lot of these records, even the early B.B. King records are Jump Blues using Maxwell Davis’ band, you know it’s a horn band.
When I got on the James Harman band I was the only guitar player in the band when I got on that band. I was a kid I was like 21-22 years old. A few years into it he goes ‘hey Hollywood Fats wants to join this band but you’re the guitar player and if you don’t want him to we won’t have him.’ And I was just like ‘wow Hollywood Fats man of course,’ how cool is that, I was in awe of the guy. And Fats, he really brought that into the next level because he had that Swing Jump Blues thing down better than anybody I ever heard really. Fats, you know, he would be at James Harman’s house and that was the nucleus of all this stuff that we started to do. And Junior Watson rented a room from Harman, so he lived there to. So I would go over there almost every day and we’d listen to records man. We’d listen to records and eat, have BBQ, drink beer and just have these great record parties and listen to music. So for me the formative years of that kind of a thing. You know Junior was playing in Rod’s band (Rod Piazza) at the time. And Rod’s band was very Chicago, Little Walter oriented, they played like almost all of his repertoire. But Watson would do a Swing Blues, you know like a Tiny Grimes instrumental and it would be just killer. So I think all that kind of sound was based around Rod, James Harman Band, William Clarke had a lot of really good guitar players in his band. And so it kind of developed that people started calling it the West Coast sound. I think it really has a lot of elements of different stuff in it. But, kind of that flavor of a Jump Blues stuff with other things, you know.”
Kid Ramos is not your average traditional Bluesman. Yes, Kid can swing as hard as anyone. He mostly plays a traditional style of Blues often associated with clean, jazzy guitarists. But, Kid’s passion and attack come through always and plays out in the raw thick sound of his guitar. Kid Ramos IS the music and he is not to fussy about the vessels he uses to punch that music out of himself. Defying convention and uniformity, Kid doesn’t like the thinner, string-y-er sound of the standard Fender amplifier which is the Blues standard. Committing guitar snob sacrilege, Kid Ramos often plays a solid state amplifier. For those of you who don’t know or don’t care (which you really shouldn’t) most guitar snobs will say you have to use amplifiers with vacuum tubes in them to get a warm sound. A solid state amplifier uses only circuitry and is seen as less than.
“(I use a) solid state Vox Pathfinder it’s got one 8’ speaker. People hear it and they go ‘what is that man?’ It’s a solid state amp with an 8’ speaker man. To me the sound comes from your hands, you know. You can get stuff and enhance stuff or find something that inspires you when you hear it. You know if, like, you are playing a guitar and you’re diggin’ the vibe of the guitar and you plug it into the right amp, that makes you play a certain way. Cause the sound comin’ out of there is like oh man gettin’ the tone you want. But, I try to get the tone I want in whatever I play through, you can find a way to do it somehow.”
Vox amplifiers are the sound of the British Invasion. A British company, Vox was the alternative to the Fender/Marshall amplifier battles. Vox amps, with and without tubes, get a thick mid-range sound. When on tour with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, which was the dream gig Ramos landed after his touring hiatus, Kid traded a vintage Fender Bassman for his first Vox AC30 (the Vox standard workhorse).
“I’m not like a big gear guy particularly. You know whatever works. I love Vox amps. I have an old AC30 that I used in the Thunderbirds and I used it for a lot of stuff actually. It’s that class A amp, it’s different then a Fender amp. To me I never like Fender amps with Fender guitars, they always sound to treble-y to me. It’s like a treble bomb, you can’t get away, no matter what you do you can’t get that treble out. I like playing hollow bodies and different stuff, but, I end up always going’ back to a Stratocaster just because it’s the easiest guitar to travel with. And if you got one guitar you can get every sound you need to get out of a Stratocaster. To me it’s like a crescent wrench, if you have one tool and you had to work on a car, you need a crescent wrench, that’s what the Stratocaster is (chuckles). I had all those Fender amps, back then you could get ‘em for nothing you know. I never liked the way they sound with a Stratocaster, they just sound treble-y. But when I stumbled onto that AC30 I go well this is something else, this is a different thing altogether.”
Kid plays the big hollow body “jazz boxes” often used in Jump Blues too. His main hollow body ax is a big 2 tone Harmony, often played through that solid state Vox. In the early days Kid had a serious vintage instrument a 1951 Gibson ES 5 Switchmaster hollow body guitar, a guitar worth quite a lot of money especially now a days. Like many artists who is striving and developing, Kid moved off the big hollow sound and ended up selling his old ES 5. But, fate had other ideas.
“I used an ES 5 on some of those Evidence recordings that I had that actually came back to me. I sold that guitar to a friend of mine. And about a couple years ago I was playing at this club and he comes and he goes ‘you know what that guitar belongs with you man, it’s just sittin’ in my house.’ And I go ‘well you’ve had a few drinks tonight bro.’ He goes ‘no, I’m bringing it over your house tomorrow.’ I go ‘no worries, man’ I didn’t believe him. The next day he calls me he goes ‘I’m standing in your driveway.’ I go downstairs and he’s got this 1951 ES 5 in the brown case that I sold him like I don’t know 10-15 years ago. He goes ‘here man this belongs with you.’ I open the case, man, and I literally teared up, I almost started cryin’. It was like seeing a friend you hadn’t seen in years, you know. And it had the same strings on it (haha).”
COVID has hit Kid Ramos just like every other artist who makes their living physically bringing the Blues to people all over the world. “I’m pretty much stuck here in Southern CA, I haven’t done much. I’ve played some gigs with my son cause my son has his own band he has CDs out and stuff too.” But, when the the pandemic hit and the world shut its doors, Kid and his bandmates in the journeymen conglomerate The Proven Ones, were on the cusp of really maximizing on the incredibly creative and popular success of their project. The band along with Kid consists of Willie J Campbell on bass, drummer Jimi Bott, keyboardist Anthony Geraci, and Brian Tempelton singing with his gravely croon. Kid tells the story of how The Proven Ones started and how they worked through their 2 preleases:
“The bass player, Willie J Campbell who has been one of my closest friends for 40 years. I played with him in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but I met him in the James Harmon Band, we’ve always just had a good friendship through all the years. He put together a New Year’s Eve gig in Missouri where he lives. We had Sugaray Rayford, me, Anthony Geraci, Jimi Bott and that was the band you know. He flew everybody out there and we’re in the van picked up from the airport driving back going ‘you know this gonna be a great time, we need to make a record with this band.’ Because at this time Randy Chortkoff (founder and executive of Delta Groove Productions a major independent Blues label) had passed away, nobody knew what was going to be the future for Delta Groove. So we go ‘let’s do a recording, let’s get together and make a record man, with this band you know, it’s a killer band.’ So Jimi Bott has a great studio, he’s a fantastic engineer, he has a studio in his house you know. So he goes ‘let’s put together a few gigs in Portland,’ he lives in Oregon. ‘Everybody fly out let’s figure out everybody’s schedule and when we can do it, and let’s make a record.’ That’s what we did. Played the New Year’s Eve gig (in Missouri) and had a great time, we hung out at Willie’s house, rehearsed and kind of just reacquainted everybody what we wanted to do material wise. The gig went off great and everything so we kept the fire going you know so to speak. We basically went out to Portland and we played a couple of gigs. And in-between the gigs we recorded during the day and that was the first The Proven Ones record, Wild Again. Well Ray, he did some scratch vocals but he just really wasn’t focused on doing that. He had his own thing going by then really strong and I think he just realized he was spread too thin. So enter Brian Templeton. You know we just fell in love with Brian man. He was the perfect fit. The guy’s so down to earth, just a talented musician all the way around a great singer. The guy came in and just nailed all this stuff. So of course everybody lives in different states.
So our first gig (after the first record came out) we played the Waterfront Festival in Portland, whatever that is 30 thousand people or somethin’. The first record comes out we haven’t played since we made the record. I didn’t even meet Brian, cause he flew in to Jimi’s and did the vocals after the fact. We come out a couple days early, we go to Jimi’s house, we rehearse the record and we go out and play the first show in front of all these people. Everything fell into place you know.
The second record (You Ain’t Done), Mike Zito approached us and said I’m starting this small label. I’d love to sign you guys and have you guys come out to Louisiana to this studio and do a record. We can all live there, it’s like an old, big property it used to be a plantation or something years and years ago. The guy who bought this property, he put all this money into it. Dr. John recorded there, just a host of people have recorded there. There’s like two houses and there’s like a huge barn where the studio is, I mean it was just great. So we all went down there. We stayed there for 4 days. Cooked food, had a great time, recorded all day into the night and we made the next record. Then you know we put it out and of course the pandemic hit so we haven’t really had a chance to go out and prompt that record.
Between the two The Proven Ones records, Wild Again and You Ain’t Done, there is a significant shift in artistic vision.
“Well the first record we picked material and we had a couple original things we had worked on for the Thunderbirds that never came together. You know that I’d worked with Kim, and a couple of songs we thought well you know, and Kim was like I’m fine with whatever, so he never used them so we finished them and kind of made them kind of our own. But, the rest were kind of like covers, we do our versions of you know ‘Loan Me a Dime,’ pretty much a Blues record for the most part. So the second record we all started writin’ songs. It’s all originals, everything on there is originals. So that’s how that came to be the way it is and everybody’s kind-a coming from a different place with their influences and stuff. Anthony, you know Anthony’s been writing songs for years, I wrote songs with James Harman back in those days. Brian’s got all these ideas and stuff to. We pretty much just started writing songs and they all you know came together in the studio. We pretty much made them what they are in the studio. So it is a different kind of record. I don’t think it’s a Blues record either, but it’s definitely got some flavors from us. So who knows what the next record is gonna be, you know. Everybody is kind of open and that’s cool, because I’m not hung up on any Kind of particular thing about what kind of music it is. As long it’s telling a story and people are playing from their heart, I’m good about it, you know.”
As modern and rocking as Kid plays in The Proven Ones, he is at heart a traditionalist. Like so many legit artists creating within a traditional frame, Kid pays homage to his forefathers. A crowning achievement was the live Floyd Dixon record Time Brings About A Change that Kid produced, arranged and played on in 2006. Dixon, a contemporary of Charles Brown and T-Bone Walker, sadly died just a few months after the release of the album.
“Oh man, Bob Auerbach (CEO of HighJohn Records), he’s the one that approached me and I had never met him before. He said ‘I’d like to talk to you and have a meeting with you, see if you would be interested in producing a Floyd Dixon record.’ And I went ‘Floyd Dixon are you serious? Of Course.’ So I went to his house and Floyd was there. The first thing I told him was, what you need to do, it’s like baking a cake, you need all the right ingredients. So if I put together the rhythm section and I get the right music backing up Floyd. Floyd’s gonna become Floyd again and do what Floyd does best. I guess they liked what I said because he hired me to do the record. We rehearsed it I don’t know 2 or 3 times at Bob’s house with Floyd. And the first rehearsal, I bring this band in and we start playing and about half way into the first song Floyd jumps up from the piano bench and he goes ‘you guys know how to play.’ He was so blown away that we knew his music and we understood what he was trying to do. I mean Larry Taylor on upright bass and Richard Innis on drums, that’s the rhythm section right there, you know the Hollywood Fats Band rhythm section. I put together these great great horn players – baritone and tenor. You know I had a big hollow body guitar. I had those records, I know what Floyd Dixon records are. It just came together so well.
And meeting the guy, he was just a warm wonderful guy too, man. He came to my house, I cooked dinner for him, my wife and I, we had him over. He told me he used to go to Joe Lewis’ house and date his daughter. So I knew he liked boxing. He used to play cards with Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the great boxers of all time. I’m a big boxing guy, a big time boxing fan. I invited him over for the fights, we sat at my house and we ate dinner and watched the fights. We had him over here a couple of times. It was so cool.
We went to LA to pick up the recordings from the live 2 nights and we were listening to ‘em in my car. Floyd was sittin’ in the passenger seat and I’m driving back from LA. And we’re listening to ‘Cold, Cold Feeling’ the T-Bone Walker song and I’m playing guitar. And Floyd just looks over at me and goes ‘You know what Kid? If T-Bone was alive right now we’d go over to his house and he would be so tickled to hear this.’ And I was just like you know, man, that was the greatest compliment anybody could ever pay me in my entire life.”
Kid’s relationship with Auerbach has continued to be warm and mutually beneficial, affording Kid more opportunities to play with the old guard such as Johnny Tucker.
“Well this guy (Auerbach) is just a really wonderful guy and he wanted me to record Johnny Tucker. I put together some musicians, you know we went into the studio, we cut 32 tracks in 2 days. Yeah, I mean it was a crack band, the band was just perfect man. I just called out different grooves, different things, and we just started lettin’ it roll. So we have a record that’s all done, it’s gettin’ mastered now. Yeah and it’s gonna come out Johnny Tucker and Kid Ramos probably in August. I got Jason Lozano on drums, who played with the 44’s, Carl Sonny Leyland on piano, and Johnny Bazz from the Blasters on bass, and me on guitar. And then my son was in the studio with us too and he sang some tracks. So I have another whole record after this one comes out with Carl Sonny Leyland singin’ and my son singin’. So I have enough for 2 records there so.
Most serious Blues guitar students site Hubert Sumlin as a major influence. The enigmatic guitarist who propelled Howlin’ Wolf’s music, Sumlin was a unique talent without peer and near impossible to emulate. Kid sites Hubert amongst B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Magic Sam as an important touchstone.
“The thing is, the way he (Sumlin) played, there was no way he could explain it to anybody. I backed him up a couple times, the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet, very child like really. His approach to the guitar, he just played what he felt, he didn’t have any technical training, nothin’. I don’t know anybody that can play that stuff that he played on those Howlin’ Wolf records, like if you could get that tone and try to play like that. You know Duke Robillard, he can play like almost anybody. You know he can play like Guitar Slim, he can play like T-Bone. I’ve never heard anybody play like Hubert Sumlin. He had his own approach man. “
Kid Ramos is one of the great instrumentalists of the Blues. His distinctive style is a clear and unfiltered expression of his life, his passions and his soul. A true survivor, Kid has done what has been necessary to provide for his family while also feeding his heart’s cry for music. No stranger to hard times, Kid persevere with humor, grace and passion.
“You know you got to just roll with. We got sick, my wife and my son, yeah we caught it (COVID) right during the holidays. We were sick during Christmas and New Years. Yeah, it wasn’t bad, for me it wasn’t bad really at all. I’ve been much sicker, man. I went through a year and half of chemo man. I was in the hospital for 5 days at a time, 7 hours of chemo at a day. So it’s pretty hard to kill me man, you know what I mean, I’ve been way sicker than the COVID. For me I’ve been shot at, stabbed, beat cancer, beat COVID, I’m like whatever man, I’m gonna keep going. Nobody knows about tomorrow, I’m gonna take it one day at a time. (haha)
So I’ve been fortunate, man, in my career some 40 years of doin’ this that I’ve been able to meet the right people at the right time. I’ve got to play with some of my heroes. I’ve got to travel all over the world. Still people want to hear me and they don’t throw rocks at me, I’ll keep doing it.”