Today, Asian American artists like Far East Movement, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Bruno Mars climb the pop chart with regularity. Those of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, however, had a more difficult time finding someone who looked like us singing hit songs. That’s what makes the career of Larry Ramos — whose classic group The Association will be performing at the Aratani Theatre on April 20 — all the more impressive.
Ramos, born in Waimea, Kauai, in 1942, was a child star who played his ukelele on the Arthur Godfrey talent show, appeared with Esther Williams in the 1950 movie “Pagan Love Song,” and performed in the touring musical of “The King and I” starring Yul Brynner. When he was 10 or 11 in the early ’50s, Ramos moved to the Bell area in Southern California, attended Bell High School, and majored in political science at East L.A. College and Cerritos College.
The performer, who says he’s “mostly Filipino” but is also Spanish and Chinese, never dreamed of being a solo star. He was content playing guitar and singing in coffee houses. But in 1962, a member of the New Christy Minstrels asked him to try out for the 10-member folk group. Although they responded well to his audition, Ramos heard nothing for weeks, so he assumed he didn’t make the cut.
“They finally called to say, ‘Sure, you’re part of the group.’ And I said, ‘Well, what took you so long?’”
Because the Minstrels were signed to be the back-up group for the first season of “The Andy Williams Show,” Ramos also had to get cleared by the show’s producers. Was the delay due to hesitation to include a brown-skinned musician on their program? “Yeah, I think that was a big part of it… I would be on TV every week. It was something for them to think about, and I’m glad that they made the right decision.
“And they thought it would be cool to have an Asian in the group, a non-white, basically, and how it would be a total Americana group. So I was a token non-white in the group at that time. Because of that, it gave me a lot of exposure, which before, no Asian I had ever seen in the entertainment business had. There was one guy from Hawaii, who was a Filipino dude who was in the ‘Hawaiian Eye’ series (Poncie Ponce). He was the only one other than me — that I knew of — who had any kind of TV Q.”
Founder Randy Sparks wasn’t happy with some of the performances on their debut album, so Ramos and other new members — including Barry McGuire (who’d later hit #1 with “Eve of Destruction”) — re-recorded some of the tracks, and the LP was re-issued with a new cover featuring the new line-up. Ramos shared in their Grammy Award for “Best Performance by a Chorus.”
The group scored three consecutive Top 40 hits (the biggest, “Green Green,” peaked at #13 in 1963) and a gold album. Ramos even got to handle the lead vocals on a couple of songs per LP, though none of the A-side singles. His work can be heard on ten studio albums.
How did audience react to this clearly ethnic musician? “They’ve called me everything, which I don’t mind. The press has always been good to me.” In Italy, he was thought of as Chinese. In the South, “to keep from getting all kind of hassles, it was almost a thing where I carried my ukulele with me. And they would say, ‘Well, where’s he from?’ ‘He’s from Hawaii! … Leave him alone.’ Somehow, if you’re from Hawaii, you’re all right. As long as you’re not black (laughs). ‘If you’re brown, you can hang around,’ you know, the old saying.”
After his twin daughters were born, Ramos realized he needed to stay home more, so he quit the group in January 1966. He released a nice solo single on Columbia, but it failed to chart. Then a friend told him The Association was looking for a replacement musician for their tour. Their lead guitarist, Jules Gary Alexander, was quitting to explore his spirituality in India (before the Beatles made their pilgrimage).
Ramos followed the band up to the San Francisco area to watch their concerts to get a feel for their music (he wasn’t supposed to play on that tour). But just before the second show, bass player Brian Cole hurt his fingers trying to throw firecrackers out of their car. So Alexander told Ramos at 4 p.m.: “‘You gonna be on tonight! You gotta play lead guitar.’ I said, ‘Oh boy, this is great. How’m I gonna learn the chords?’ He said, ‘Well, we have two albums here, and here’s a turntable, and here’s the album. We go on at 8.’ I guess about 6 o’clock I was ready.”
“Up until that point, I had never played lead guitar. I played banjo.” By end of the tour, Ramos was singing as well.
If his initiation into The Association was jarring, the rewards were almost immediate. Ramos sang co-lead vocals on five of the 11 cuts on their next LP, “Insight Out” — more than any other member. He also shared the lead vocals on the two big hits from it: “Windy” (with Russ Giguere), which topped the chart for four weeks in the summer of 1967, and “Never My Love” (with Terry Kirkman), which spent two weeks at #2 in the fall. Both went gold.
His experience in the Minstrels had come in handy as it taught him how to blend with any sound. “Terry could sing nice and warm, but there was no one who could sing with him, that would complement him. Now, ‘Windy’ was with Russ, who’s a little more nasal and more piercing than Terry is. And he’s got his own style, and so I had to sing within his style… and complement him and just round him off a bit too because he was a bit too brassy. And that was my strength — that I was able to basically be like a vocal chameleon and blend with the other guy so the sound is neither his nor mine but a combination of both.”
At the end of 1999, when BMI issued its list of the 100 all-time most played songs on radio and television, “Never My Love” came in second with over 7 million plays (including hit remakes by the 5th Dimension and Blue Swede). The Association placed two more songs on the list: “Cherish” (#22) and “Windy” (#61). The only artists represented more (four apiece) were the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel.
Impressively, less than a year after they first made the charts in 1966, The Association collected four Top 40 singles that featured five different lead vocalists: Jim Yester on “Along Comes Mary,” Terry Kirkman on “Cherish,” Jules Gary Alexander on “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies,” and Giguere and Ramos on “Windy.” Although the Beach Boys also sported five hit singers and the Spinners and Temptations eventually beat them, no other group in history boasted such a diversity of sound in such a short period of time.
Gerald Ishibashi of Stonebridge Entertainment, who’s promoting The Association’s show in Little Tokyo, said, “I remember seeing Larry on an album cover, going ‘Wow!’ It was a welcome surprise. [It] reassured me that my commitment or hopes and dreams and vision were a possibility. It made me feel like ‘I can do this do too.’ I think Larry was a pioneer. He opened the door for broader cultural diversity for representation in popular and American music. To add this other element really opened some doors for a lot of people.”
Despite his irreplaceable contributions, Ramos still faced racial barbs from his bandmates. “When I first joined, they would give me the old Chinese/Oriental jokes, you know, like uh, ‘Hey, did you get the shirts done?’ All that crap, you know? And the pineapple sh*t too, you know. I got a lot of that stuff. But you know, you have to roll with it.”
While doing their performance piece “The Machine” in concert, each member would be introduced and play like a machine. “And then it would come to me, and they would say, ‘And out of Japan, we have this electronic machine.’ But you know, I would let that stuff go because I said, why not, you know, it’s harmless. But after a while I turned it around on them… And I said, ‘Well, you know, you have to understand how difficult it is to be working with six token whites on stage!’ And [it]would get a reaction.” And Ramos gained respect.
“Terry Kirkman said something to me at the very beginning when he was the leader of the group. He said, ‘Larry, you don’t have to be that guy anymore.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘The guy you were in the Christys where guys made fun of you and all this other stuff. You don’t have to be that guy anymore.’ And I said, ‘You mean I can be myself now?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. We want you to be yourself.’”
Ramos stayed with The Association until 1976. In 1979, the hit-making line-up reunited for a Cocoanut Grove concert (filmed for Showtime), an “Ed McMahon and Company” charity event, and a performance for Ishibashi at Kono Hawaii, a Japanese/Hawaiian supper club in Santa Ana.
I caught the group in 1984 when they were part of the package “Happy Together” tour. They actually sounded better than their records, and I thought it was a sin they couldn’t get a recording contract. Today, of the seven-member band, which includes four of the aforementioned five lead vocalists (Kirkman left at the end of 1984), Ramos says, “The vocals are better now, believe it or not. We have guys who sing on key now, all the time. We don’t have to worry about that. And the tenors are back, which is a big plus because all the high parts are back.”
Since 1984, Ramos and Russ Giguere have owned the rights to the group’s name and “the little brown guy in The Association” has been its leader. Looking back on his extraordinary career, Ramos reflects, “I always dreamed of working with all of the big stars — Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Julie Andrews — and I have! I’m just representing myself on stage. And if [that’s a positive representation for Asian Americans], then more power to that. I’m not looking to be a star. I’d just like people to say, ‘He played and sang well and he did his job well.’”
Tickets for the Association concert are available for $40 and $50. Call the Aratani Theatre at (213) 628-2725 and inquire about group discounts. For more information, go to www.jaccc.org.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.