By Terry Watada
The overhead fluorescent lights are off, the high school gymnasium dimly illuminated by refugee Christmas lights. Somehow the stale smell of athletics is gone, replaced by the sickly sweet smell of punch and adolescence. The sock hop, Sadie Hawkins or Harvest Dance has been going well. Couples gyrate and spin to the throbbing hits of the Top Forty spun by some enterprising student d.j. No one close-dances, much to the relief of parent and teacher chaperons. That is until the last dance.
Bob Matsueda, Sansei stand-up comedian in 1980s Northern California, once rhapsodised the last dance in one of his monologues. Every generation has a song that signals the last dance, the last chance to engage in that mystical and biological urge to be intimate, however innocently, with someone of the opposite sex. For Bob, it was You’re Still a Young Man by the Tower of Power; for Nisei, it was Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael; and for Issei, it was Midare, a traditional Japanese tune. For me, it was Cherish by the Association.
Today, the Association is considered a “sunshine pop” band of the top tier with acts like the Mamas and Papas and Spanky and Our Gang. Back in their heyday (the 1960s), the Association was simply a rock band. Based in California, like most of the sunshine pop movement, the band generated a multitude of hits like Along Comes Mary, Windy, Never My Love and Cherish. The ballads of course were ideal for the last dance since they contained romantic lyrics; impossible, lush harmonies; and a slow beat.
What distinguished the Association from every other band back then was the fact that it had an Asian American member: Larry Ramos. Ramos was born in Hawaii (weren’t they all?) in 1942. Of Filipino background, his father was musically inclined. From his mother’s singing to his father’s ukulele playing, it is understandable that Larry became a musician. He began in the movies, playing ukulele and singing in the Esther Williams’ movie Pagan Love Song. He then appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s talent shows on radio and television. The kid was a hit.
He became a member of the touring company for the King and I in Southern California until he started appearing in coffee houses in Los Angeles. It was there he met Randy Sparks, founder of the New Christy Minstrels. Sparks was impressed with the young folksinger and invited Ramos to join the band.
Ramos stayed with the ensemble for four years, recording and appearing all around the world. By 1966, he however tired of the straight-ahead approach of the group and wanted to venture into the new territory of “folk-rock”, like Bob Dylan and the Byrds. He left and eventually sat-in with the Association as a substitute bass player. When another member left the band in 1967, Ramos became a full-time member.
The unique thing about the Association was that each member played an instrument, wrote songs and performed those songs. Ramos became their lead guitarist and began recording with them for their third album, Insight Out. He appeared as part of the band at the Monterey Pop Festival, the first of its kind anywhere. I saw them at the O’Keefe Centre and they certainly proved to me they were no manufactured vocal group saved by studio techniques.
Ramos worked on five albums with the Association and sang on their hits Windy and Never My Love. His lead guitar work was central to the band (listen to their last hit for his playing: Six Man Band) until their breakup in 1975. He and the group reformed in 1980 and he continued to appear with them until his last performance, February 24, 2014. He died April 30th, 2014, at the age of 72.
What was really great for me about Larry Ramos was seeing a person of colour in the rather pale landscape of rock music back in the 60s. Even better that he was an Asian American. And I’m sure he faced much racism for it, especially when the band toured the US South. There is a You-Tube video of the New Christy Minstrels performing Michael, Row the Boat Ashore for some TV show. It features Ramos singing a verse and chorus in a “chop suey” accent. The rest of the group mimics him in the chorus. It is absolutely offensive, but Ramos sang it bearing his characteristic smile. Whether he was compelled or he volunteered to do it cannot be known for he wasn’t the Martin Luther King of contemporary music. In an interview he stated, “I’m just representing myself on stage. And if (that’s a positive representation for AsianAmericans), then more power to that. I’m not looking to be a star. I’d just like people to say, ‘He played and sangwell and he did his job well.’”
Cherish was wonderful, its sensual harmonies and simple sentiments produced the ideal dreamy atmosphere for a last dance. And Larry was part of that. I have to say that Larry Ramos not only gave me the confidence to dance but also to play music in rock bands. If I could say anything to the man it would be that he played and sang well and he absolutely did a good job.