The blues world knows Kid Ramos for his tasteful guitar work and production, most famously playing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but appearing on tons of albums in various capacities, ranging from Mexibilly with Los Fabulocos to an all-star blues rock configuration with The Proven Ones. 75 and Alive has Ramos serving as band leader, music writer, and producer, for Johnny Tucker, the titular 75-year-old blues singer.
But despite those blues credentials, Ramos comes from an opera family. His step-father was a singer who toured with the Metropolitan Opera. Ramos's step-dad grew up in the Bronx, leaving New York City as a teen, joining the military, eventually landing in California, where he decided he wanted to be an opera singer with the same ease many people use when they decide to start wearing more courdoroy.
It was through opera that he met Ramos' mom. The two married, both eventually leaving music, but Ramos' step-father left an indelible mark on him: "I think I'm influenced a lot by the kind of person he was," Ramos says. "He was kind of the actual embodiment of a self-made person. [He] decided he wanted to do something and just put his mind to doing it, and did it. [He] taught himself to play guitar. He's the first person that showed me any guitar chords; he played guitar and sang."
Ramos lost his father at 18, forcing him to leave college to help out his mother. A few years later, he was in the James Harman Band, traveling with the blues harmonica player, and putting Ramos on the path he would follow the rest of his life. It also created a path for Ramos' son, also named Johnny.
"I remember I was producing the Floyd Dixon sessions, and I was learning some of Floyd songs, and my son sat on the floor, and he was pretty young at the time, and he just sat on the floor and listened to that," Ramos recalls. "He was moved by it, like to tears. And I remember [saying], 'Wow, Johnny, you really like this.' He goes, 'Yeah. There's nothing like the sound of that guy singing that song.' And so he was kind of set in motion. His future was going to be in music" (Ramos even wound up playing on and producing his son's excellent, Johnny and Jaalene, which also features singer Jaalene DeLeon. It's an album I loved, and my three-year-old daughter adores even more).
Ramos similarly sees music as a vocation. He's a certified arborist who works between gigs. "I've had periods of time where I did nothing but play music for a living," he says. "But as I got married and started having kids and trying to have some stable home life for my kids, that became more and more difficult. To me, I'd like to go back to just playing music for a living."
Listening to 75 and Alive, which resulted in 32 tracks over two days, you have to wonder what Ramos would sound like if he did nothing but music. While it doesn't take much to generate a lot of musical content in a short period, making high-quality tracks takes skill. Ramos and Tucker dig deep, creating engaging, exciting songs, rooted in classic Chicago blues, building an album that's conceptually more like an action photograph, capturing rather than composing.
Which isn't to say there aren't sweet moments. Ramos and Tucker both appreciate a good ballad, and there are some downright 50s moments at various points in the album. But it's stunning that Ramos can orchestrate something this good, in such a short period, while also holding down a day job.
Here Ramos discusses his process for 75 and Alive, and his approach to the blues, as a lead and supporting player. As good as Ramos is, and he can play almost anything in any style and make it sound perfect, he's an even more talented producer, able to craft memorable backing tracks, and bringing out the best in everyone he works with.
75 and Alive
Working Mojo: What was the process for writing 75 and Alive?
Kid Ramos: I put the musicians together [and] Johnny Tucker came in. It's the first time he'd ever been in a vocal booth. He was in a room by himself; he's usually in the room with everybody, but I wanted to keep him isolated, just to have control over everything. And basically, I just ran the band through different grooves, different things.
We cut 32 tracks in two days. The record is the best from those two days. And then the engineer [Dave Irish] and myself and Bob Auerbach [Tucker's manager and owner of the HighJohn record label], we picked what [we] thought was the best material. And we just worked with it. Everything's live, basically, except the horns were overdubbed.
WM: And did you go in there with 32 grooves ready to go?
Ramos: I just had stuff in my mind. I had things in my head of what I could throw at Johnny and see what he could come up with. Because Johnny doesn't really read and write, so he didn't have any lyrics or anything written out. He just kind of shoots from the hip. That's how he works. I've done some stuff with him in the past. It was an interesting process, but it came out really well, fortunately.
WM: So the night before the session, were you thinking about things that might work well for his voice?
Ramos: I had ideas on different things that would work for him. And some of this stuff just happened in the moment. But to me, my experience, I produce a lot of other records, including my own, and having the right musicians in the studio is like baking a cake: having all the right ingredients and then the finished product is going come out how you want.
I never really dictate to the musicians what to play. We understand the language of that genre of music. Basically we know what fits with what type of grooves and everybody just brought their best game and then came out.
WM: So how does it work? How did you know when Johnny was done? Did you just keep doing verses and choruses until he signaled to stop?
Ramos: Well, nobody could really see him. He would sit down in the vocal booth, [and] it was kind of difficult for him, because he was in that room, and he couldn't really see us. I could see everybody else. We were all within eye sight of each other. My amplifier was isolated but I was standing in the main room with the drums and the bass. And the piano was just across the room in another booth, but he could see us. So I would just signal everybody.
And then the stuff where Bob Corritore played harmonica, he was in the room with us, even though his amp was in a different room. So we had headphones on, and everybody could see me, so I directed the band. And basically we just ran through different things until we hit on some stuff. It really came out well by just fortune, I guess. I don't know.
WM: Have you made albums like this before, in this style?
Ramos: I have made different records in that same way. A lot of the stuff I've done, I count on the musicians to bring the right stylings to each song. Some of my stuff that I did with Evidence records, like Greasy Kid Stuff, and those, each one of those guys brought in different songs. And we just basically improvised everything. It's kind of like jazz, in a way. We improvise, somebody says, 'Okay, it's a shuffle, it's in the key of G' or whatever it is, if we know what key it's in... Maybe we went over the beginning and an end or something, and then we just would let it roll.
WM: Do you think this recording style would work for other genres? Obviously, it's suited to blues, but do you think you could do a rock record this way? Or a pop record?
Ramos: That's a good question. I don't know if you're familiar with my band, The Proven Ones, but those are songs; they have changes and stuff. But those songs and that stuff, obviously we knew the songs ahead of time. We had practiced them before we came to the studio and everybody knew the songs, but again, once you get in the studio, it's improvised. You can go back and say, 'Okay, I need to fix something,' but for the most part, my whole career doing this, is stuff's live. There are not that many overdubs.
WM: Do you go beyond the blues into what you feel is essential listening?
Ramos: I do. I think it's all music. I don't really differentiate between blues or something else. Blues is something that caught me at an early age. So I identified with it. Somehow I heard it and identified with it. I was 16 years old when I got my driver's license, and I would go to this place down by where we lived called the Golden Bear back then, and I would see all these guys play.
So I got to see Freddie King and Muddy Waters and Mike Bloomfield. I got to see all of them in small clubs. So I was inspired by that. That was the first thing that really captured me. Other than the Beatles. I heard the Beatles when they came out, and I thought the Beatles were the greatest thing. I still think the Beatles are one of the greatest things ever.
So I'm inspired by anything. I'm inspired by punk rock, blues, anything where the people are telling a story, and it's coming from their heart and soul. It doesn't have to be one thing or the other. I'm not really particularly hung up on anything in any particular style. If I hear somebody playing something [and] I go, 'Wow, they're really emoting what's inside them. You can hear it,' then I'm on board.
Sitting with it
WM: And can you tell in the moment, as you're playing and listening, can you tell if the song's a keeper or not so great? Or do you need to listen to the playback to decide?
Ramos: You can tell. You've got a sense of what's going to work and what isn't, but you've got to let it sit for a little bit and come back to it and listen to it with fresh ears. Thirty-two tracks in two days is a lot of stuff. It's a lot of recording.
I actually have enough stuff for a whole other record. I had [pianist] Carl Sonny Leyland singing some stuff. And I have some tracks that don't have any vocals on them and I have some stuff my son Johnny sang, so we got some different stuff that's still enough for another record. I've been doing this for 40 something years, so I kind of have an idea of what's going to work or not.
WM: How long do you like to let it sit for?
Ramos: Well, the engineer, [Irish], he's a guy that's busy all the time. He travels with the band and he's the road manager, and sound man, and then he has a studio that's close to my house, so I've done some other projects with him. And I really like working with him.
Basically, we listened to a few things that day, [and] each day we listened back to stuff, and then I had an idea what I was going to do the next day, but a lot of the stuff, I had to wait for him to send me the tracks. So I had to wait a week or two, sometimes based on his schedule. So I would listen to them and just kind of get an idea of what was working and what wasn't.
And then some of the stuff we had to do some repairs on some of the vocals, maybe move a line or something, but everything was pretty much how you hear it, other than the mixing of it. And the songs that had horns on them, those got added, of course; the horn player wasn't there with us. I had an idea which songs I wanted to put horns on, so I sent him the tracks, and he put the horn parts on them.
Groove is in the heart
WM: How do you know something's a good track? Are there certain things you listen for?
Ramos: Yeah, you can tell.The groove is the essential thing. So, if the rhythm section is locking in, and we've got a good groove going...you know, some of the stuff Johnny threw out there, some of it was really good and some of it wasn't as well [developed], and didn't make it onto the record.
But how much time is he going to have to make a pass that's really good, and in a day's time. He's 75 years old, his energy level is going to run out at some point. That was another consideration: how Johnny was doing. We would keep recording after Johnny would go home. We had the studio blocked out for eight hours a day, so I wasn't going to just go home after three hours. So we we stayed and kept playing stuff. But everything that Johnny sang is live.
WM: Was there anything where you had him go back and do a second take?
Ramos: Almost everything's one take.
WM: So the instrumentals were improvised too?
WM: How much pre-production did you do for this?
Ramos: None really. None at all. We just basically thought, 'Okay, we'll see what Johnny is gonna come up with.' Because Johnny doesn't have anything written down. He's not a guy on a computer writing stuff. He can't really read or write, so he's old school. He sings stuff from his own experiences and you just hope that he's going to come up with something that's coherent. And I can kind of lead him in a direction like say, 'Hey, let's keep this one' or 'Let's try a different thing' and maybe talk about it. But really, honestly, man, it was all just kind of winging it.
WM: The blues is so idiom-based. How do you find something new to say? How do you lay down 32 tracks in two days without repeating yourself?
Ramos: That is a challenge. That is the challenge. And without a doubt.
To me, it's like building a house. So you have the foundation. I've listened to these records for so many years and I know the styles and what fits on each particular style. Like if it's an Elmore James thing, I know what goes there. Basically, you take that foundation and from that you build the house that's yours. But you've got to have the foundation first. You've got to have a basic understanding of that music and there's so many different styles of it.
I really learned all that stuff from James Harman. I started following him around when I was 21. So I was younger than Johnny, my son. I would go over to his house; he was a record collector. He had 78s, 45s, he had records that he bought with his lunch money when he was in high school or junior high in the 50s. So we would go to his house and he'd make mix tapes of all the different styles of blues and I would just soak it up like a sponge.
And Junior Watson was living in his house, he was renting a room there. He's a great guitar player. So I would hang out with him and play guitar. Different people. Hollywood Fats came into the band, who was, I mean by the time he was 19, he'd already played with Muddy Waters, Albert King, Jimmy Witherspoon. He was in all these guys bands, so he was an encyclopedia of different blues styles.
The thing about the blues is, as people migrated to different parts of the United States for work, or whatever—like Muddy Waters is from the Delta; Mississippi. He goes to Chicago and invents electricity, basically [laughs]. He took what he did on Stovall's plantation, which was a variation of Son House, then he goes to Chicago, gets an electric guitar, gets Little Walter with electric, you know, microphone and a harmonica going through an amplifier. They start that band where everybody in the band had their own band later on, and made records under their own names. Jimmy Rogers. Otis Spann. That became the Chicago sound.
But the guys that came out of Texas, like T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins, they had a different thing. The guys who moved from Texas to California, and California had more of an uptown thing where they had horns and more of a jazz feel to some of this stuff. Every different area where these people had moved, for economic reasons, or whatever, then the style of the music was influenced by the things that were going on locally. Like country music on the radio; a lot of these guys were influenced by Hank Williams, and country.
So you become somewhat of a historian when you delve into this music, and being into the records and collecting records, and listening to all those records through the years, you learn all the different nuances of the different styles. And then from there, you try to find your own identity. And that's the key thing that makes it unique to you.
WM: Do you still have the cassettes James Harman gave you?
Ramos: I do. I have boxes of them [laughs].
WM: Do you ever go back and listen to them?
Ramos: You know what, my tape deck stopped working a while ago, and I've got to find a good tape deck. I really need to do that. Because there's so much stuff. I have a lot of records now too. So I can listen to some stuff on record or everything's on CD now. But yeah, it's a constant process of learning. You don't ever stop learning.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.