Kid Ramos, lead guitar slinger with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, measures the success of his new solo album by what could well be a unique standard--especially in the often ego-driven world of guitar heroes.
"You could completely take my stuff out of it and it would still be a good record," Ramos, 43, says without a hint of false modesty as he sits on the patio of the '40s tract home in Anaheim he and his wife have lived in for 10 years.
It's not that Ramos doesn't consistently turn in meaty, meaningful guitar parts. It's just that he's one of those rare guitar aces who's more than happy to delegate solos--not only to sax and harmonica players who often blow alongside him, but even to other guitarists. That's because the sound and feel of each record as a whole--not just the guitar solos--is his top priority.
So in addition to Ramos' own work, his just-released third album, "West Coast House Party," features contributions from fellow guitarists including Texas blues man Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, former Roomful of Blues/T-Birds member Duke Robillard, former Mighty Flyers/Canned Heat guitarist extraordinaire Junior Watson and Little Charlie & the Nightcats' Charlie Baty, among many others.
"These people are all my friends, my peers, and I dig the way they play," Ramos says. "I've never understood the competitive thing among musicians. If it were the Olympics and this was a footrace where the first one to the finish line wins, then great. But this isn't a race--it's music."
With his football-size biceps and oak-barrel chest, the short but powerfully built Ramos looks as if he'd be ready for some Olympic weightlifting at the drop of a barbell.
Instead, he's putting those well-defined muscles to work single-handedly remodeling one of his bathrooms, a project he's chipping away at between solo gigs (his five-piece band plays tonight at the Long Beach Museum of Art and Oct. 21 at the Huntington Beach Pier) and concerts with the T-Birds (the group plays this weekend in New Orleans and Seabrook, Texas).
"The records I've always liked have been the ones where the singer tells a story and the players help him," Ramos says. "Those records where guys just play endless solos--I'm a guitar player and even I don't want to hear that. I just want to make good-sounding records."
"It's like painting a picture with just one color," he adds. "If you use a bunch of other colors, you get a better picture."
In addition to announcing the album's theme, the title, "West Coast House Party," also turned out to be an accurate description of the two marathon days in February during which all 16 songs were recorded. Ramos invited many of his favorite players to come record a couple of songs each in the West Coast style of horn-driven jump blues and swing, and it developed into a celebratory get-together for many of the Southland's top blues enthusiasts.
As pioneered by the likes of T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, Gatemouth Brown and other Texans who found themselves transplanted to Los Angeles, the West-Coast-blues school of guitar favors, cleanly articulated, single-note runs over the thick, distortion- and chord-heavy style popularized by their Chicago counterparts.
Along with his guest fret-board wizards, Ramos also lured his current boss (T-Birds singer and songwriter Kim Wilson) and a former one, veteran singer-songwriter-blues harp man James Harman, with whom Ramos played for most of the 1980s.
It was during those eight years with Alabama-born, Huntington-Beach-based band leader Harman that Ramos evolved from an eager kid of limited skill to one of the most respected guitar players in contemporary blues.
One name not in the credits but whose presence figures prominently in Ramos' decision to devote an album to the West Coast blues contingent is that of guitarist Michael "Hollywood Fats" Mann, who died in 1986 at 32 of a heart attack.
Mann also was a member of Harman's band in the '80s, and the dual-guitar assault he and Ramos developed, fueled by the exquisite rhythm section of bassist Willie J. Campbell and drummer Stephen Hodges, and topped by Harman's incendiary harp and vocal work, made the Harman band a thing of wonder.
Ramos said it was only after he left Harman's band in 1990--he wanted to curtail the extensive touring to marry and start a family--that the impact of his unspoken tutelage with Mann really sank in.
"Me and Fats never sat down and he goes, 'Here, play this chord [or] lemme show you this.' He never gave me one guitar lesson, ever. . . . But just by osmosis, I learned a lot of things from standing on stage with the guy night after night. Years later, I'll hear myself play something and think, 'Wow, where did that come from?' and it comes from that. So part of my thing to give back is to always mention Fats and to remember him because he had a lot to do with the style I have."