While growing up in Hilo, Hawaii, I’d often hear an Association hit followed by a disc jockey reminding us (with some variation of), “Hey, you know, one of the members of that group is Larry Ramos, who’s from Kauai. So he’s a local boy who made it big!”
It grew kinda tiresome, as I was surrounded by local Asian Pacific acts like the Society of Seven, Don Ho, Liz Damon, Cecilio and Kapono, and Kalapana. It wasn’t until years later that I realized: None of them ever made the Top 40 on the national charts except for Liz Damon (once). Don Ho only made the Hot 100 (again, once).
But Larry Ramos wasn’t a mere member. He was the co-lead vocalist of a song that stayed at #1 for four weeks in 1967 — “Windy” — and was likewise on the follow-up #2 hit “Never My Love.” Both million-sellers and classics.
Still, in the early ’00s while back home in Hilo catching up with my best friend from intermediate school, Dwight Suzuki, and his mother, she suggested I interview Larry, who was by then a friend of the family. I gave her a blank look and asked, “Why?” She, appearing as if she was no longer sure herself, answered, “Oh, I don’t know, I thought you could use it for something.”
The practical part of me knew The Association was no longer recording and wouldn’t make the adult contemporary chart, upon which my Dick Clark countdown show was based, and the company already had an interview with Larry and the band in their library to use for Dick’s oldies show. It was only while interviewing Ramos ahead of the group’s Little Tokyo gig in April of last year that I realized what a civil rights pioneer he was.
In 1962, less than five years after Nat “King” Cole lost his television show due to lack of a national sponsor, the New Christy Minstrels had to get permission from “The Andy Williams Show” to allow Ramos to join because he’d be seen every week on television as the singer’s back-up band. Would any sponsors object? It took a few weeks before they said “OK.”
I’d like to think when Don Ho got his ABC TV show in 1976 he faced less resistance because the country had already gotten used to seeing a brown-faced Asian Pacific Islander 14 years earlier. This was a guy who put up with racial jokes on stage from members of both the Christies and The Association, but got the last laugh by becoming the latter’s leader in late 1984.
After the Association concert, I went up to Ramos to introduce myself (I’d met him in ’98 but doubt he remembered). We let out a loud, “What?!” then started laughing. He’d seen my column and wanted me to help him write his autobiography. “Hey, you know how you said you used to be a ‘ghost singer’ on some of those Association tracks?” I joked. “I’ll be your ‘ghost writer!’” He let out another big laugh, but quickly added, “No, I want to give you credit!”
About a week and a half later, on the phone, Ramos told me, “It was the nicest article anyone’s every done on me. I framed it! And the amazing thing about it is, everything you said in it was accurate! There wasn’t one thing you wrote that was wrong!” (After talking to the media for 22 years, guess how many times I’ve been quoted accurately? Three. So I could relate.)
After reading my two columns on Ramos, my agent suggested I do a book proposal on his life, just as I had for my “Guilty Pleasures” ’70s project (it ran over 40 pages, the two sample chapters over 40 pages apiece, and it all took months to put together). She suggested a price range of what people usually charged to do that. She was willing to shop it around to six or seven editors.
After leaving a message to explain this to Ramos in mid-October, he called me back just as I was stepping out. I said I needed to call him back, but he interrupted: “Uh, I just wanted to let you know: The doctor gave me six months to live.” I felt like I was in a movie. What?! Ramos had melanoma, a tumor in his lung. So the biography now had greater importance.
When I called him back the next day, I told him, “Larry, I’ve been reading People magazine for more than 30 years. You know how many times doctors tell people they have X amount of time to live and they beat it? Look at Valerie Harper! She has incurable brain cancer, they gave her 6 months to live, yet she’s still alive and on ‘Dancing with the Stars!’” He agreed, he wasn’t going to give up.
I relayed my agent’s message, but the price was too high, so I encouraged him to write his own notes because his story deserved to be told.
On Jan. 2, while back in Hilo on vacation, I heard that Larry was in a hospital in Spokane due to internal bleeding. I called to cheer him up. He had missed two gigs with The Association and asked his business partner of 29 years, Russ Giguere (with whom he sang “Windy”), to take control. But Ramos later explained, they weren’t invited back “because of his attitude, because of his bad singing.” He fired him!
Now down two lead singers, Ramos’ brother Del had to reorganize the group. They had a three-hour meeting before a gig in Alexandria, Va., where they decided who would sing what. After the show, many audience members came up to them saying it was the best performance they’d ever heard them do, and they were invited back for the following year.
Del reported back to older brother Larry, who was still in this hospital. Del told me, “He didn’t say anything for like a few seconds… and my Mom picked up the phone. She says, ‘Your brother’s crying.’”
Larry recalled recently being in a car hearing unreleased tapes the group had recorded in the early ’80s. “I heard the song and I started crying. And Jules [Alexander] started crying, and Jimmy [Yester] starred crying. You don’t realize until you look back [what beautiful work you did].”
Ramos hadn’t written notes about his life. So without a phone recorder in Hilo, I told him, “I’ve got all these pens and papers here in front of me. Whatever you want to tell me about your life, tell it to me now!”
“I have to use the bathroom.”
OK, the first sign that this wasn’t going to be easy. “I have to go real bad!”
When I called back the third time, a hospital staffer said they’d sent Ramos home because there wasn’t anything more they could do for him. I took this to mean his days were numbered. I had three lunches in a row with friends, all the while worried he might call, and I’d miss possibly the last chance to get his career down. I should’ve listened to Mrs. Suzuki long ago.
Luckily, he held on. We spoke about his career three more times. Amazingly, on Feb. 24, he was able to perform in back-to-back farewell concerts in Grangeville, Idaho, where he’d lived since 1985. Asked what he felt leading up to it, he said, “Nothing, really. Just another show! I just try to keep it in perspective. I didn’t wanna be a blubbering idiot.”
But Del told me, “It WAS a big deal for him. I caught him crying after the show with my mom.” Larry was so drained, he had to go back into the hospital for another week. To hear his performance of “Never My Love,” go here.
In our 2013 interviews, Larry mentioned that before he retired he wanted to do a concert in Hawaii, where he’d reclaim his Hawaiian heritage and perhaps perform with present and past groups. I asked him who he’d like on stage with him.
“Oh, Jesus Christ! I don’t know anybody, you know, ’cause as I said, most of them are gone now! You gotta realize how old I am, for Christ’s sake! And all the people that have influenced me probably have gone through their careers and have retired already! That’s the bad thing about it… I’m such an old sonofabitch… I’m almost 72, but [because]I started so goddamn early that all the people that knew me when I was a kid, they’re all dead already! Lot of them are dead! And that’s a shame. I’m real old!”
He remembered old comrades like Barry McGuire, who’d left the Christies and had a #1 solo hit with “Eve of Destruction.” Ramos was proud of being the only past member who came to see him perform on Broadway in “Hair,” calling him the older brother he wish he’d had.
There was Brian Cole, who gave him more racial grief than anyone else in The Association. The group sent him to a “shrink” trying to get him off heroin, but he wouldn’t be honest about anything, and they had to resign themselves to the inevitable. When Cole died of an overdose in 1972, Ramos recalled, “That broke my heart… I went to his funeral, and I said, ‘Brian you stupid sonofabitch, you’d be alive today if you had listened to us!’”
Years later, Ramos asked Cole’s son Jordan to join The Association but warned him: “Don’t you dare become like your daddy! You got too much goddamn talent, and I don’t wanna see it wasted like that.”
Of the year he spent with Yul Brynner on “The King and I”: “He was the king on stage and offstage… He had one of the filthiest mouths I ever heard,” warming up before shows by saying the F-word.
I had two pages of questions, thankful for those I got to check off. But I never got to the second page.
The last time I spoke to Larry, on March 23, he talked about plans to return to Kauai and Hilo for his birthday on April 19. He intended to see my friend Dwight, but he never got a call. Turns out Ramos felt weak in Hilo and had to return to Idaho on the 28th. Two days later, he passed away in a Washington state hospital.
Unfortunately, this time the doctors were right. Six months was all he got.
He probably never got the birthday card I sent to Idaho. It congratulated him for having lasted so long. “Each day you live is a victory for us all,” I wrote. If he opened it, he would’ve heard a crowd of people clapping and whistling.
I’d like to think that’s what greeted him when he arrived in heaven, met by past relatives. And when he found Brian Cole, I’m sure he had some words to say to him, but in the end, I’m sure they laughed and hugged.
And I hold on to something Larry told me back in January as he lay in his hospital bed: “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m gonna be OK.”
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.