|WILLIS ALAN RAMSEY AT THE MINT, LA, CA 2/5/2001
by Larry Gardner
About twenty-five years ago, sometime in the mid-seventies, I saw Willis
Alan Ramsey perform at a club in Great Neck, Long Island. I drove out to
the show from New York City with my main squeeze and three friends. Willis
Alan Ramsey was on a double bill with Johnothan Edwards. J.E. had charted
that year with a song that had "sunshine something" in the title and the
lyric. My friends and I had no interest at all in J.E. We were rabid fans
of this kid from Texas and were probably the only four people in New York
that knew who he was-the guy that wrote:
I wish I was a millionaire
Pretty women’d come to me
You’ll come over
Those words were brilliant to our young, self-consciously, un-hip, young minds. Sure, we went to Studio 54 and Le Jardin, but just to check out the scene, get fucked up, party ‘till we dropped, you know same old, same old. But Disco sucked. We were into Jazz and R&B, maybe a little Sly and the Family Stone, some Van Morrison, The Reverend Green, Smoky Robinson, Aretha!
So, there we were on our way to Great Neck in my 1961, black Mercedes 220S with the red leather interior, the burled walnut dash and the fourth gear that kept popping out unless I slipped a short rope, I had attached to the base of the seat, over the shift lever. I had purchased the "Black Beauty" in New Hampshire, earlier that summer, for $75 and an old burned out Karmin Gia-you know the "poor man’s Porsche."
My black Benz was no Rolls, I was no millionaire, no rock star, no nothin’, but hey, we were going to see and hear Willis A.
HOW I DISCOVERED BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND WILLIS ALAN RAMSEY
In the mid 70’s I was living with my girlfriend, Mariette, (should of married that one) on a decrepit, 55 foot schooner moored at the base of Dykman street in Spanish Harlem. But that is another story. I did not have much money for records, but up on Broadway, a few blocks from my boat, was a small shop that sold demos, seconds and used vinyl. Every time I took the "A" train I would stop into that tiny shop to see what was new. One fortuitous day I bought two albums that caught my eye. One was the green W.A.R. album and the other was called: "Greetings from Asbury Park," by some kid from New Jersey. They were both marked: "Demo, not for sale!" I think a paid about $3 for the pair. It was not long before I was forcing all my friends to listen, over and over again to my two "discoveries." I was certain these two lads from opposite ends of the earth were destined to become mondo superstars: bigger than Marvin Gaye, bigger than Patty LaBelle, Ray Charles, The Beatles, Jesus!
THE GREATNECK NIGHTCLUB
When we arrived at the club on Long Island we were a little taken aback and not for the first time that evening. The place was a medium sized affair, painted flat black, a little neon here and there. It seemed to be trying a little too hard to be hip. But the thing was…a fucking supper club! Why wasn’t W.A.R. playing Carnigie Hall? Lincoln Center? The Garden?
The Filmore East was closed, but every time I walked by there I would put my hand on the plywood slabs that boarded up the place-to catch-the vibe.
At the supper club there was no line? A $2 or $3 cover and we were in, just like that. We took a table near the front and ordered some beers. Looking around, we found the place to be half filled with toney Long Islanders. L.I. was another country to us, full of "Bridge and Tunnel" people for chrisakes!
WILLIS ALAN RAMSEY TEARS UP THE PLACE?
Our next surprise was W.A.R. himself, in the flesh, standing alone, acoustic guitar in hand, a mere pup. No cowboy hat, no boots, no spurs, just him, no band, no Muscle Shoals rhythm section, what?!!
W.A.R PULLS A J.D.SALINGER
Before I get into that show 25 years ago on Long Island and the show at the Mint in LA, let me tell you a little bit about W.A.R.
Willis Alan Ramsey was born in 1953 in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Dallas Texas. He moved to Austin after he graduated from high school. When he was in junior high he was part of a folk duo with Bryce Beard. Bryce was a big inspiration to Willis who encouraged him to start writing his own material. Willis says basically he just got sick of Bryce coming over and saying things like: "Oh, and here’s another song I just wrote."
In the early 70’s he used to play at a coffeehouse at the University of Texas that was run by Lyle Lovett.
Willis ran into Leon Russell and the Allman Brothers at a hotel in Austin. He pulled out his guitar and played a couple of tunes for them on the spot. Russell was impressed enough to offer him a record deal on his Shelter label.
The record was recorded in Memphis, LA and Texas. It took over a year and was a very frustrating ordeal for Willis. But the effort was worth it. The result was the only album he has ever recorded, the green one with a young Willis grinning from under a cowboy hat cocked back on his head. But the songs sound so fresh, laid back and fun it is hard to imagine that they were a chore to produce. The 11 tracks included; "Muskrat Candlelight," later recorded by America and The Captain and Tennile as "Muskrat Love," "Spider John," Recorded by Jimmy Buffett, and "Satin Sheets," recently recorded by Shawn Colvin. W.A.R. has also had his tunes covered by Kate Wolf, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Jeff Walker.
The deal that Willis signed with Shelter required him to come up with a new album every year for five years. When a year went by and Willis did not deliver a new album, Shelter just re-released the green album. After the term of the contract expired he was dropped.
Then, it seems, he just disappeared of the face of the earth. Went into seclusion? Pulled a J.D. Salinger?
What he did was move to the British Isles, apparently to study Celtic music. The story goes that he was about to move to Dublin and he came back to the US to renew his passport, met Alison Rogers, fell in love, got married yadda, yadda, yadda.
He also renewed his friendship with Lyle Lovitt. Lyle, Willis and Alison co-wrote "You say you’re not from Texas." Willis also sang his song "Angel Eyes" from the green album, at Lyle and Julia Robert’s wedding.
LOS ANGELES CALIFORNIA 2001
It was late in January as I was looking through the LA Weekly I noticed that W.A.R. was going to be at the Mint February 5. I called the club, gave them my Visa card number and reserved tickets to the show. I was told they were $12.50. I remember saying something like: "Man, W.A.R. is worth a hell of a lot more than $12.50!" I was also told that they would not run my Visa card until I presented it to them at the door.
When I arrived at the club on Feb. 5 there was no line. Tim Ferguson from The Cousin Lovers was talking to the door guy, going over the guest list.
I presented my Visa card and was told not to worry about it, to just go on in. I said: "But I want to pay!" Again, I was assured it was not necessary, as they did not have a machine handy to swipe my card. Noticing that Willis was already on stage and playing, I gave up and walked into the Mint and what the fuck?!….it was a supper club, filled with toney, inattentive people. The first person I ran into was Dean Thomas from The Cousin Lovers. I punched him in the shoulder and nodded at the stage. Dean said: "Hey man, this guy’s pretty good. Who is he?" Where to start? Not wanting to go into any lengthy explanations I just said: "Willis Alan Ramsey."
All the tables were taken so I stood near a pillar, slightly off to the left side of the stage. At the table in front of me there was a gaggle of pretty girls busy talking to one another; one was especially easy on the eyes….
I was handed a bottle of beer by my friend Larry Basso. I would not have bothered to go through the hassle at the bar and lose my spot-surly the place would fill up soon.
I was a little disappointed that I missed the beginning of the show, but thrilled to see him after all these years. I was told later that he started with "Spider John."
BACK IN LONG ISLAND 25 YEARS EARLIER
So there we were, the Gang of Four from the Big Apple ready to tear it up on Long Island at the Willis Alan Ramsey show. I think the group included me, my girlfriend Mariette, Peter Mauceri, Rafael the German, and his fraulein Belinda. W.A.R. just stood there and knocked off all those tunes from the green album. We knew all eleven of them by heart: "Ballard of Spider John," "Muskrat Candlelight," "Geraldine and the Honeybee," "Wishbone," "Satin Sheets," "Goodbye Old Missoula," "Painted Lady," "Watermelon Man," "Boy From Oklahoma," "Angel Eyes" and "Northeast Texas Women." The song "N.E. Texas Women" has what seems to be a room full of people beating on anything they can get their hands on, and the lyric:
South of Oklahoma, east of New Mexico,
But nobody was listening!? It was becoming painfully obvious that we were the only W.A.R. fans in the whole stinking place-everyone else was there to see Jonathon Edwards. To my friend, Rafael, the guy with the hot German blood, the audience’s inattention was inexcusable. So, in between songs, he jumped up on the stage, grabbed a microphone and started yelling: "SHUT THE FUCK UP! Don’t you know who this is? This is the great Willis Alan Fucking Ramsey?" Well, Wills took one step back and looked around for help. It came in the form of two burley bouncer types who gently removed my friend from the stage. But it worked. The audience froze and did indeed shut up…for one song. Then they resumed their inattention. They just couldn’t seem to contain their lack of enthusiasm.
Well, W.A.R. made it through the set with a minimum of nicks and bruises and disappeared backstage and downstairs to a dressing room. The gang of four followed. We found him alone, packing up his guitar. He was very gracious and did not mention "the incident." We were like a bunch of shy groupies, bowing and scraping in the most peculiar "we are not worthy" way. Willis pretended not to notice. We brought him a bottle of wine as a gift. We chatted with him for about a half an hour, got our albums autographed, and left club the four happiest people on Long Island. It was amazing to us that no one else bothered to stop by the dressing room to say hi-we were they only four fans in all of New York.
BACK AT THE MINT FEB 5, 2001
The crowd of pretty people at the Mint obviously had no idea who this guy was up on the stage all by himself strumming his guitar and singing his quirky, bittersweet songs. They where chatting amicably and could not seem to be able to contain their…you know, lack of enthusiasm.
Willis sang the hits, a few new songs, including "South Dakota,"and told stories about Texas, Lyle Lovett and the roll of gossip in small town America. At one point he asked if there was anyone in the house from Texas? This got the attention of one yahoo who did just that.
Then I bumped into my friend Ramsey Midwood. He was not happy. Ramsey is perhaps the only other guy I know in LA that is as big a W.A.R fan as I am. I tried to tell him a short version of the story about the show 25 years ago on Long Island. He brushed me away. I wasn’t listening to the show. No one was listening. It was bullshit! Why doesn’t everybody just: "SHUT UP!" he shouted. Everybody did. Willis looked nervous and said something like: "I don’t want to start nothing’," and launched into another song. I think it was: "Painted Lady."
Followin’ the stars through the honky-tonks and bars
And I’ll tell that woman how it used to be
The audience listened to the song and resumed their inattention.Willis seemed poised and confident in a shy, uneasy kind of way. He forgot the lyric to one of his songs and lo and behold, another fan, this one up front prompted him and he continued.
Then a strange thing happened: other people started yelling "SHUT UP." It was like deja vous all over again, but I lightened as I realized that this time there were other fans in the room, but not many. My friend Ramsey Midwood was pacing up and down in front of the bar muttering: "This club sucks!" and "Shut the fuck up already." It was a beautiful thing-I was not alone.
Someone attached to the club cut Willis off after 50 minutes and he did not seem at all happy about this. The show at the Mint was the only show he did in LA. I tried to book him into my Monday night show, the Riverbottom Roundup, at Viva Fresh in Burbank. For the past thee weeks I had been exchanging e-mails with W.A.R.'s manager, Louis Jay Meyers. He promised to ask Willis about doing the show and he would get back to me, but he never did.
After the show I tried to say hi to Willis again but this time there were several fans ahead of me and then suddenly he disappeared into the back.
My friend Ramsey Midwood hung out until after the Cousin Lover’s part of the show and had dinner with Willis and another friend. Willis paid for dinner and said that the Mint had stiffed him on his performance fee.
Welcome back Willis.
Note: The are two pretty good web sites, one Official and another Official, unofficial one with lyrics and tabulature. Check ‘em out.
Yesterday I was browsing through the used CD section at the Marina del Rey Werehouse when I found a Shelter release of the green album for $7.99. It says on the insert that it was released in 1990. But good news, Koch records has re-released the album and is available in your favorite record store or on-line through