“Why Guitar?” Stu Ramsay

Recently, I suddenly awoke remembering a horrible dream! The last words I heard spoken were, “And don’t forget to bring your Tuba to the party!”   I sat up, threw my legs over the bed, still perspiring, and motionlessly pondered those words. For the next few minutes, the weirdest visionations flashed through my mind. I saw the Everly brothers swinging great horns back and forth ever so often loosening their lips enough to vocalize a “Peggy Sue” in unison then wrap them back on the mouthpiece. Andre Segovia sat there holding that convoluted bulbous brassy monster with a look of wonderment, or was it a grimace as in “Get this damned thing off me, I’m loosing circulation!” Yet what really got me focused was Elvis in his white sequined outfit gyrating up on his toes clutching a tuba as if it were Marilyn Monroe!

Bring your tuba to the party! What a scary thing to ponder.  Just think about it, Ed Sullivan and the likes of Lawrence Welk had popularized the accordion. Why didn’t every kid want an accordion?  Why not the tuba? What if they just made different sized tubas? (They kind of already did that with the array of horns that already existed.)  So then, why has allure and appeal, and outright stardom embraced the six stringed instrument?

The tuba wasn’t convenient. Lets face it. It isn’t easy to carry with you, and in photo shoots, the big brassy thing takes center stage. It’s heavy, just handling it requires a Sumo wrestler strong man! It wasn’t the instrument so much as it was the persona embodied in the person handling it that made it un-attractive. Oh, and let’s not forget in a diminutive way, it had curves that well, were attractive in a sexual sort of way, but that sexual denotation in the hands of a skilled stage man was the key, an instrument remotely resembling the ultimate object of sexuality. The curvy guitar wielders would eventually dominate the stage. Everyone caught the innuendo when those hunky guys fondled trim waisted instruments.

To borrow a quote from a posting at The Acoustic Guitar Forum,  “You start off playing guitars to get girls & end up talking with middle-aged men about your fingernails” – Ed Gerhard That saying may be closer to the truth than anything else. I remember the first time seeing the reaction of the “girls.” I was 12.

School officials paraded us 7th graders from our classrooms to the indoor gymnasium bleachers. I sat up in the nose-bleed section hoping to sleep through the moment. Before us, down on a solitary chair placed at about the halfway line of the basketball court was this 8th grade kid sitting there with a five string banjo in hand, and his guitar to the side. For about the next 15 minutes or so he wowed us with riffs on the guitar, and flash-flying finger picking on the banjo. Didn’t quite catch why we were there or the full name of the fellow, Ramsay or something. I wasn’t so much impressed with his musicianship as I was in what I saw. The girls were just ogling him and going gah-gah at the experience.

Well, the experience spurned me on. I practiced riffs and difficult fingering on my accordion like nobody’s business, yet no one invited me to their parties! Like, “Hey Henning, come to the party and bring your accordion!” As an 8th grader I wanted to get next to those girls, but didn’t have the mojo. By the first couple years in high school I thought things would change. Nope, still a no-go wandering around looking for his mojo, but at least along the way I had found the pal Sony Terry and Brownie McGee sang so much about in their blues songs.

With the accordion gathering dust in the closet, I was determined to learn to play guitar. Unfortunately, I was alone in this endeavor and could only afford the funkiest piece of crap around for 25 bucks, a three-quarter sized Stella made in the US out of inexpensive plywood, with strings as high off the frets as Mount Everest! (as an aside parents, get your kid the easiest to play guitar that sounds halfway decent right off the bat! Worth the investment.) There weren’t luthiers around back then that could do a guitar set-up. Every guitar I own today new or old has gone to the luthier for a proper set-up, worth the money. So, with funky Stella in hand (didn’t even have a canvas bag case for it!) I started taking lessons from… you guess who? Stu Ramsay, that ogled kid, now a Senior who I had seen way back when. He could only roll his eyes at my Stella, but he didn’t dissuade me ‘cause the three bucks for the lesson felt good in his pocket.

The Ramsay family seemed cool folks to me. They were different, thought differently than I was used to. Stu had a couple brothers and an older sister. His mom was a stately, long-haired woman, nice but stern in a stoic sort of way. At his house we’d smoke cigarettes, and although his mom frowned at it, she wasn’t restrictive. Coffee. They’d throw grounds in a pot with water, and some egg white! After boiling, the egg white settled the grounds, and cups would be poured. Never seen it done that way before or since. Someone, never did learn who, played the Grand piano in the living room. Right next to it Stu kept this strange looking guitar. It had a big round disc in the middle.

After my first lesson I asked about the ‘Dobro’ leaning there. He grabbed it, put some picks on his fingers, picked up this metal tub called a “bar” and proceeded to fly around gracefully making hillbilly dobro music. How should I know they call the genre Bluegrass. I was stricken. Couldn’t get that dobro off my mind. I went home to practice some major chords on the Stella, but it hurt like hell and sounded like crap!  I remember after about three or four unfruitful guitar lessons, Stu hit me with it. He made me an offer; “I’ll teach you what I know about playing dobro if you practice and then play for me!”

Are you kidding me! Free lessons and the potential chance to play hillbilly music in front of girls, I would have been nuts to say no, I said, “Yes!” And that started my association with Stu Ramsay, multi-musical instrumentalist, child prodigy of Frank Hamilton, Ray Tate and a host of negro blues artists. You see, I didn’t know it at the time, but Stu had spent his junior to senior summer traveling all over the country with two other guys, college graduates mind you, as a bluegrass trio calling themselves, The Knoblick Upper Ten Thousand. They even had a commercial record! Since Stu wanted to finish high school he dropped out of the trio for that senior year. As I heard it the Knoblick lasted a couple years then broke up. The leader went off to NY and started writing R&R songs and promoting a new folk-rock group, The Loving Spoonfuls.

Stu’s musical association began with The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and of course, because he was an adolescent rising star, his folks made sure he received private lessons from those folk/ blues gurus that only demanded the best. His study/practice habits were without tom-foolery, but strict and concentrated, and Stu expected that attitude from his students. Back then to learn a riff or ‘lick’, you’d slow a Folkways record down to assay the riff, try it out, and do it over and over and over until you got it right. Stu was a master of the method and mechanics. Same with banjo or dobro, and harmonica. He was a serious musician, and I think that one positive attitude would eventually sink his commercial boat.

Stu Ramsay was a good musician, his focus and attention to detail par excellent. He didn’t create songs, he really wasn’t a singer-songwriter, but he did sing. After our couple year stint with bluegrass, he felt himself more and more drawn to the blues styles of the past negro greats. But back to my story. After four months of practicing day and night to the detriment of my junior high school class work, we formed a trio, then bas player Dave Roe came on the scene which rounded us out. Somewhere along the way Stu chose to name the group, Stu Ramsay and the Clary’s Grove Boys. We did mainly Bluegrass renditions after the tradition of the Stanley Brothers, Flat and Scruggs, the Country Gentlemen, etc. This bluegrass wasn’t hillbilly, but the up and coming Americana acoustic music of the sub- suburban middle states. You might regard bluegrass as a genre within folk music generally, often featured at music hoot-n-annys and folk concerts that started to arise back then. Bluegrass music, like blues of the times, really didn’t utilize electric guitars, and that one fact set us apart.

Now, Ramsay had a recording contract with Mercury Records, three years- three records. With the help of a couple studio musicians (guitar and bas) he played acoustic dobro, banjo, guitar, and harmonica often with two or more instruments on the same song. Mercury pressed his album, Stu Ramsay Loves Dobro Banjo Guitar Harmonica. When our little group started playing in public, we were mainly doing non-paid promotional gigs for his album. By the following summer, we had a few paying gigs, too. I remember we got a spot at the popular Chicago lounge, The Gate of Horn. Unfortunately, to play that venue we needed to join the Chicago Musicians Union. That cost each of us 87.50 dollars. The Gate take was 75 dollars apiece! Mercury got us to again pay to play!

Mercury used a great big studio down off Michigan Ave, and Stu cut the tunes for his second album. Once he had the Master tape in hand, he went to visit the promoter, a Frank Friedman if I recall correctly. Stu walked into his north side offices so proud with that Master only to get struck below the belt a hefty blow. Friedman headed Triangle Productions and somehow had finagled contracts with up and coming R&R bands. Stu thinking he had the goods there in his hands for a second pressing, was told they wouldn’t be acting any further on his contract. I remember the line, “We have the Beatles, Stuy, we don’t need you!”  Evidently they handled the Midwest concerts and had found a lepriconic pot of gold.

That was a hard blow for a kid of 19 or 20 years, to think one moment you were worth something in the commercial musical arena only to be kicked in the butt for all your hard work. I don’t think Stu ever recovered from that moment. He stayed with bluegrass and blues and after graduating went off to the mountains to find himself. I know he had at least two name changes, Darsono, and now Wilson. I still like to think of him as Stu Ramsay, cause I had a lot of fun with him when we’d play, or hang at the Old Town School of Folk Music, or at Dawn Greening’s house in Oak Park. Stu introduced me to the guitar and dobro, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful. Bringing my guitar to the party is a whole lot easier than lugging a tuba!

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