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The story behind the first Asian American to win a Grammy

By Raymond Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer

Larry Ramos blazed the trail for the Asian American Pacific Islander community as a pioneer pop star in the White-dominated recording industry in America. He was the lead vocalist and lead guitarist with The Association, an American sunshine pop band, from 1967 to 2014. He became the first Asian American and Filipino American to win a Grammy Award in 1963 as part of the New Christy Minstrels on Columbia Records.

Kauai, Hawaii

Born Larry Ramos, Jr. in Waimea, a plantation town in Kauai on April 19, 1942, he was Filipino with traces of Chinese and Spanish blood. Larry, Sr., his father, owned a dry cleaning business and operated a pool hall. Pat, his mother, worked at Kauai Inn gift shop as a clerk.

A child prodigy, at three years old, his father taught Ramos to play My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, a traditional Scottish folk song, with the ukulele. He came from a musical family as many considered his mother an accomplished Filipino singer.

“While Dad did practice “behind the cashier desk” in the hotel gift shop while his Mom was working, he would go to bed with his ukulele (actually sleep with it) so that he could wake up and play it,” said his daughter Tracy to AsAmNews. “He taught himself how to play by listening to the radio and replicating the sound. He would always play instruments by ear and could play any “stringed” instrument but never learned how to read music.”

Larry Ramos playing the ukelele in Hawaii. Via Tracy Ramos.

While playing his ukulele at his mother’s Kauai Inn gift shop, a film casting director discovered him and later cast him in Pagan Love Song, the Tahitian romantic musical film starring Esther Williams and Howard Keel. He had a cameo in the film singing the The House of Singing Bamboo with his ukulele at the Coco Palms Hotel.

Dad’s scene ended on the cutting room floor; he wasn’t in the movie’s final cut. However, his clip from the movie was later included on DVDs as part of the “extras” in the deleted scenes/outtake section,” said Tracy.

Then in August 1950, Ramos competed in a Territory ukulele contest sponsored by KGMB radio station and judged by Arthur Godfrey. At Kapiolani Park, Godfrey searched for acts to appear on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts radio and television broadcasts.

Tracy told this story:

In 1950 there was a ukulele talent contest in Hawaii. Arthur Godfrey went to each island to see contestants and pick the ones he wanted to go to the finals. There were 28 contestants on Kauai, and Dad was the last person to perform (10:00 PM). He had switched with the person before him because that individual had to get to work.

Larry Ramos with Arthur Godfrey. Via Tracy Ramos.

My Grandmother would say that Arthur was bored – like he was falling asleep, having his head in his hand and his elbow on the table by the time it was my Dad’s turn to perform. Finally, Grandma said my Dad went up and started to play (Jealousy), and he sang the chorus and played on his ukulele – he was the only person to sing. At hearing this, Arthur picked up his head, smiled, and started tapping to the music.

After Dad got off the stage, Arthur went up to him and told him he had won (his category) and asked him if he would like to come to New York to be on his show to which my Father’s response was, “I dunno, I have to ask my Mom.” 

Ramos was one of the three winners. Then, in November 1950, in New York City, they appeared in Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.

Bell, California

In 1952, the Ramos family moved to Bell, a Los Angeles suburb near Hollywood. The parents were intrigued by the entertainment opportunities for their talented son.

Ramos regularly appeared on the television series, Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians. Owen, with his band, featured Hawaiian-style music and dance. Ramos played his ukulele and sang.

RELATED: Grammy Awards put spotlight on Asian American talent

At the age of 14 years old, he auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein, the legendary team of Richard Rogers, composer, and Oscar Hammerstein, lyricist, for the King and I, the Thai musical play.  Yul Brynner, who acted as “King Mongkut of Siam,” taught his work ethic to him.

Dad was cast as the understudy for the role of Prince Chulalongkorn in the touring cast of “The King and I,” said Tracy. “He did perform the lead role in Toronto (and in other cities as needed) when the movie was being filmed. However, he had a supporting role (one of the princes) when he wasn’t performing the lead role. 

During his teen years, Ramos learned to play guitar, cello, and other string instruments and honed his vocals. Then, he transitioned from Hawaiian music to rock and roll music. At Bell High School, he formed his band, The Defiants. They played at Los Angeles high schools, and on television stations, with Ramos as the lead guitarist. In addition, he was a gymnast, cheerleader, and study court judge at Bell High School before he graduated in 1960.

Ramos studied political science at East Los Angeles College and Cerritos College in the Los Angeles area. When not studying, he performed at coffee houses while singing and playing the guitar.

The New Christy Minstrels

By UCLA Digital Library Collection via wikipedia creative commons

While performing at a coffee house in South Gate, California, a folk music ensemble member discovered Ramos.

Ramos auditioned for The New Christy Minstrels for the job, but waited quite a while before hearing back. He finally got their call. “They said they had to clear it with the (television) producers (“The Andy Williams Show”) because I was the only non-White, and they didn’t know if that would work out or not. Then they thought, it’s Americana, it’s cool. I stood out like a sore thumb, but I became one of the more popular ones. Many people thought being brown would handicap me. Actually, that has helped me more than it hurt me,” Ramos once said.

Jackie Miller taught him to play the banjo.

In July 1962, Ramos debuted with them at The Troubadour, a Hollywood nightclub in Los Angeles.

The New Christy Minstrels regularly appeared on “The Andy Williams Show,” a weekly variety show on television. In addition, they toured the world and performed at the White House.

Ramos sang backup harmony and played the banjo in their debut album, Presenting The New Christy Minstrels. Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land was their hit single. In 1963, the album won the Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Chorus. He was the first Asian American to win a Grammy Award.

The Recording Industry Association of America awarded the New Christy Minstrels a Gold Record Award for their album Ramblin in 1964. In addition, their “Green, Green” song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Performance By A Chorus and Best Folk Recording.

In 1964, Ramos married an English-French American from a farming town in Idaho. During the interracial marriage, they had three children, Their daughters, Tracy and Stacy and their son Larry. The family lived in San Clemente, California. Ramos constantly toured with The New Christy Minstrels around the world. He dearly missed his family.

With The New Christy Minstrels, Ramos received seven total Grammy nominations. winning one.

  • 1963
    • Best Performance By A Chorus – “Presenting The New Christy Minstrels” (Album) – WinBest Folk Recording – “Presenting The New Christy Minstrels” (Album)  
    • Best New Artist Of 1962  
  • 1964
    • Best Performance By A Chorus – “Green, Green” (Single)
    • Best Folk Recording – “Green, Green” (Single)
  • 1965
    • Best Folk Recording – “Today” (Single)
  • 1966
    • Best Performance By A Chorus – “Chim Chim Cher-ee And Other Happy Songs” (Album)

In 1966, Ramos left The New Christy Minstrels for more quality time with his family. He worked as a studio musician and backup singer. He released a solo single, It’ll Take A Little Time. He toured Japan as a solo artist. He performed at the Playboy Club in Los Angeles. Pat Morita, the Japanese American comedian, and actor, was his opening act.

Larry Ramos as “Prince Chulalongkorn” in “The King and I” stage musical in Toronto. Via Tracy Ramos.

The Association

In 1967, Ramos landed with The Association, a sunshine pop band. They had national hits Along Comes Mary(#94) and Cherish (#7) on the Billboard charts from the first album, And Then… Along Comes the Association.    Terry Kirkman, the lead vocalist, pursued Ramos to replace Jules Alexander, their lead guitarist.

Ramos was the lead vocalist with Terry Kirkman while he played the lead guitar. The Association performed as a lead-off band on June 16, 1967, at the trend-breaking Monterey International Pop Festival. The band sang Along Came Mary and Cherish. This Pop Festival featured Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who and Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding.

The Association released the hit Insight Out album on June 8, 1967.   Windy(#4) and Never My Love(#20) were their hit singles on the Billboard charts. Never My Love became an American pop standard.

Never My Love

Lyrics by The Association

You ask me if there’ll come a time  
When I grow tired of you
Never, my love
Never, my love

You wonder if this heart of mine
Will lose its desire for you
Never, my love
Never, my love

What makes you think love will end?
When you know that my whole life depends
On you (on you)

Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba)

Never, my love
Never, my love

You say you fear I’ll change my mind
I won’t require you
Never, my love
Never, my love

How can you think love will end
When I’ve asked you to spend your whole life
With me? (with me, with me)

Never, my love (never, my love)
Never, my love
Never, my love (never, my love)
Never, my love
Never, my love

Lyrics by the Association.

The Association crested in popularity after 1969. They continued their concert tour across America.

During his 47-year tenure with The Association, Ramos received three Platinum Record Awards  (The Association’s Greatest Hits (album), Never My Love (single), and Windy (single). They also had two Gold Record Awards (Insight Out (album) and Along Comes the Association (album). The Association also received a Gold Record Award for participating in Barry Manilow’s Greatest Songs of the Sixties album.

With The Association, Ramos received three nominations for the Grammy  Awards.

  • 1968
    • Best Performance By A Vocal Group – “Never My Love” (Single)
    • Best Contemporary Album – “Insight Out” (Album)
    • Best Contemporary Group Performance (Vocal Or Instrumental) – “Windy” (Single)

After 50 years of marriage with his beloved wife, Larry Ramos, Jr. died on April 30, 2014,  in Clarkston, Washington, near Idaho.

Remembrance

Tracy, Stacy, and Larry, his children, remembered Larry Ramos, their father, the pioneer, and Grammy Award-winning Asian American pop singer.

Dad was always proud of his contributions to the entertainment world, especially if that meant being a pioneer for other ethnic performers.

However, in the same sentence, he would also say, “This is what I do, not who I am,” as he saw himself as a family man and man before that, a performer. It was the icing on the cake that he could make a living doing what he said “he would do for free” because it also meant the betterment of his family and loved ones.

It truly is a testament to his character that even eight years after his passing, people still comment on what a nice, personable guy he was before speaking of his incredible talent. THAT is the legacy he wanted to leave behind, and he would be pleased to know it is exactly what he achieved.  

Tracy, Stacy, and Larry.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

1 COMMENT

  1. great article…i was lucky enough to meet Mr Ramos at my first Association concert at the Westbury Music Fair(a venue, not really a ‘fair’) in Westbury, Long Island(NY) on June 13, 1968. i was sitting in my seat and noticed him checking out the crowd from one of the entranceways to the seating area…i went to him and explained that it was my girlfriend and mine’s 6 month anniversary and i had my leather guitar strap with me and it would me a LOT if he’d sign it…he was aMAzingly approachable and friendly. he RAdiated good energy, imo. and not only did he sign the guitar strap but, when he had he said: ‘hey…why don’t you come backstage and meet the rest of the guys while they sign the strap, too!’ all these years later(and after having a musical career of my own and meeting MANY other celebrities), this still was one of my favorite interactions with someone of his stature…like the article says…as much respect as i STILL have for him as a musician/vocalist, i love him for what he did for me that day…he showed me how being a person SHOULD come first and i shouldn’t take myself too seriously. that i should always be polite and approachable to my audience…it was one of the best lessons of any kind given to me in my 72 years of life. and i am VERY grateful to be able to relay that to anyone who might read this…

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