INTO THE NEXT STAGE: The Association’s New Leader Has Had an Interesting Career

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AOKI-GUY-color1By GUY AOKI

In January, when Larry Ramos, the leader of the ’60s singing group The Association, became too sick to perform, he asked his younger brother Del Ramos to assume creative leadership of the band. The first real test came on May 9 at a North Carolina concert, nine days after Larry passed away on April 30.

Since September, when Larry had been given six months to live (he lasted seven), Del had been preparing to sing his brother’s classic hit “Never My Love.” He explains, “Every vocal on that song — as well as in ‘Cherish’ — is really important ’cause the background vocals are just as important as the lead … But when I got through the first verse of it, and I waited for the other vocals to pop in, I couldn’t hear many vocals.

“And I looked around and there were two, three guys crying in the group and on stage! And nobody could sing. And I turned around and looked at everybody and gave an evil eye, and they all kind of snapped to it…

“And I thought to myself, ‘Well, how dare you guys do this (laughs) on this song, you know? Especially since I’ve been preparing myself for seven months…’

“Jimmy [Yester] was having a lot of problems … Everybody in the group was having their problems—either singing or memory problems.”

Del had to scratch his planned introduction of the ballad, where he’d explain its significance and provide details of Larry’s death, because he knew if he spoke, he wouldn’t be able to sing. Yester found out the same thing towards the end of the show before taking the lead on “Along Comes Mary.”

“He mentioned that tonight we’d like to dedicate this show to Larry Ramos, who just recently passed away. He couldn’t say any more,” said Del. “I don’t hold any grudges or anything against anybody because … everybody gave their heart out for that show.”

While overshadowed by his older brother’s higher profile, Del’s had an interesting career of his own, though it often paralleled his brother’s in more ways than one and on different levels. For instance, Larry was in the Randy Sparks-created folk group The New Christy Minstrels from 1962 to 1966. In early ’66, Sparks created and produced a new outfit called The New Society, which released the RCA LP “The Barock Sound of the New Society.” Del was one of the seven members of this baroque-inspired band.

Interestingly, The New Society was the opening act for The Association when Larry Ramos made his live debut in 1967 and was given three hours to learn how to play lead guitar (he listened to all their albums and figured it out in time). Del actually unwittingly played a hand in that less-than-ideal initiation: Brian Cole had tried throwing a firecracker out of a moving car, but it exploded in his hand, leaving him unable to play that night. Del was the one who’d given him the firecracker (he bought it at Yellowstone because it couldn’t be bought in California).

Though not mentioned in pop music histories (and none were credited as members on their lone album, which noted there had already been 20 altered line-ups), Del says at one time, The New Society boasted such future stars as John Denver, Michael Martin Murphey (“Wildfire”), and Michael Nesmith (The Monkees). Ramos remembers Denver being so frustrated with the business that he seriously considered quitting it. Ramos countered, “Are you crazy?! You got so many fans!” “You think so?!” “The rest,” Ramos says, “is history.”

1966 LP cover of “The Barock Sound of the New Society” with Del Ramos at far left.

1966 LP cover of “The Barock Sound of the New Society” with Del Ramos at far left.

The New Society evolved into the more psychedelic group Summerhill, who signed with Bill Cosby’s label Tetragrammaton (home of hard-rock band Deep Purple’s first records), which issued their self-named album. It featured solid material, everything from country to string-laden pop to hard rock, in 1969. Ramos even co-wrote three of the cuts.

Del’s performing career ended when he was asked to work as a sound engineer — with no previous experience — or his brother’s band The Association beginning in 1971. He claims every member agreed he gave them the best sound they’d ever had, once on a live performance on Tom Snyder’s show — where some fans thought they were lip-synching to records — and while opening for Debbie Reynolds in Lake Tahoe.

“A voice came up from the back of my head saying, ‘Del, that’s the best sound I have ever heard of anybody live!’ And I looked around and it was Bones Howe!”

High praise indeed as Howe, an engineer himself, had produced The Association’s “Windy,” “Never My Love,” and “Everything That Touches You.”

By that time, Del was adding to the group’s concert harmonies while behind the mixing board (if someone onstage wasn’t singing well, Del would “dump the vocal” and sing their part; if the member improved, Del would bring the voice back up in the mix). At the same time, he was also directing the timing of the lights while fearing he’d mistakenly shout commands into his singing mike!

Though original bass player Brian Cole had often given Larry Ramos a hard time with racial jokes, Cole never picked on Del, knowing he wouldn’t stand for it. The two became close, and at the Warwick Hotel in New York in July 1972, Cole told him, “If anything should happen to me, I want you to take my place in The Association.”

Del wouldn’t even consider it, denying anything was going to happen to Cole, but he insisted, “Tell me yes, Del!” So Del agreed. Two weeks later, at the age of 29, Cole overdosed on heroin.

But even with that blessing, Del refused to capitalize on it and kept that conversation to himself, only recounting it decades later to Cole’s son Jordan, who joined the band in late 1998. Of his place in the group, Del explains, “I wanted to earn it.”

That finally happened after original member Jules Alexander suggested they add Del to publicity pictures of the group. Del finally began singing on stage and playing the bass, just as Brian Cole had up until 1972.

Professional triumphs aside, Del’s faced his share of health problems. “I’m a seven-year survivor of colon cancer. And it was Stage 4 with me. I couldn’t perform with the group for seven months.”

On his 21st birthday (around 1967), Del caught a virus and, for a few minutes, was technically dead. Like many who’ve had life-after-death experiences, he remembers hovering over his hospital bed, seeing everyone in the room. In his case, it was like having X-ray vision and everything was in black and white. He did see a white light and white cloud, though not his relatives.

Later, while suffering from both bone and colon cancer, he twice had flashes of the afterlife and saw his father looking as if he were 35 years old (the elder Ramos died in his 90s). Even Larry Ramos had such an experience, telling his brother, “I saw Dad and the kahuna (God).”

Still, this year, as Larry’s strength weakened, that didn’t seem to provide him enough reassurance of what was to come. In January, Larry called Del at his other job where he sells pool tables. “He called me and started asking me about, ‘So, what’s happening, Del? How you doing? How’s the job going?’ Making small talk! I thought to myself how odd that was, because he never calls me up for anything else except group business … or else he’ll ask something about the family … And he never once called me to just make small talk.

“So after the conversation was over and I hung up, I realized why he had done it. He’d done it because he was scared. He was scared [because]he didn’t know if he was gonna really survive it or how much time he had left.”

At Larry’s farewell concerts in Grangeville, Idaho on Feb. 24, Del felt that a third of the way into the second 75-minute show, “he was done.” Larry had to stop playing the guitar and ukelele and sit on a stool. He was also having problems maintaining his pitch while singing.

Still, in the dressing room, Del thought, “I’ll be surprised if he can do one song.” And he savors the fact that people were dancing in the aisles. Despite rain and a blizzard outside, the performances were sold out. Larry had lived in the town for 29 years, but most of the residents didn’t know what he did. So Del thought, “Now they’ll treat him like a rock-and-roll superstar.”

After the event, Del returned to his brother’s home, where Larry told him he wanted to do another show in a week at a Florida stop for the “Where the Action Is” tour. “He wanted to see Paul Revere [of the Raiders]for the last time.” But the Grangeville concerts wiped him out, and Larry landed back in the hospital for a week of blood transfusions and kidney dialysis.

Del last spoke to his brother on April 19, Larry’s 72nd birthday, when he was back in Kauai, the island of his birth. “He was really happy but weak. I told him, ‘I love you, you know?’ He said, ‘I know!’”

After having medical problems in Hilo, Larry returned home to Idaho, and wound up in a hospital in Lewiston, Washington, where he passed away on April 30.

Though the singer claimed to have had nothing unfulfilled on his “bucket list,” Del reports they’d been hoping to record a concept album called “Brothers,” which would’ve been divided into tracks by him and Larry, the Brothers Cazimero, and Jim and Jerry (Lovin’ Spoonful) Yester.

“I was real lucky to be his brother and [am]continuing to feel that love from him. And I hope all the people from the islands are proud of him too because he was a real major icon to the Hawaiian Islands as far as his accomplishments and everything that he’d done on television and radio and live performances. He was always giving everything he had.

“And that was one of the things I always learned from him, you know? He used to tell me, ‘You know, people don’t care about how you’re feeling and if you’ve got problems when you walk on stage. All they know is that they wanna be entertained, and it’s your job to do that. And if you can’t do that, go sell cars or something.’”

’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.

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