Drummer Bobby Ramirez was the golden boy of the Golden Triangle in the ’60s, the 11-year-old who played with teenagers, the 14-year old who played with men. He didn’t just keep the beat, he BECAME the beat, with a natural rhythm that was not above further education. When Edgar Winters and singer Jerry LaCroix set out to assemble a “blue-eyed soul” band to beat them all in 1970, they searched the country before realizing that they already had the best players for their vision in the Gulf Coast. The first to join Edgar Winter’s White Trash was the brown-eyed handsome man with the sticks from Port Arthur who would anchor the sound. Next call was to guitarist Rick Derringer who told Modern Drummer magazine that Ramirez laid down “the best groove of any drummer I’ve ever played with.”
Taught to play by his uncle, a big band drummer, Ramirez was well on his way to becoming the Bernard Purdie, the John Jabo Starks of Texas rock and blues … and then senseless tragedy stopped the roll. In July 1972, Ramirez was stomped to death on Chicago’s Rush Street, by a man who had punched him over his long hair earlier in the night and had friends waiting outside. Ramirez was just 23.
His best drummer friend Willie Ornelas, then living in Houston, was “just numb” when he heard the news. “Nobody could believe it. Everybody loved Bobby. He was such a mellow cat,” said Ornelas, who often competed with Ramirez for gigs, yet they shared percussion patterns and other tips.
“The first time Bobby blew me away was when I was with Jerry and the Dominoes, playing some club in Houston, and Jerry [LaCroix] called him up on ‘Harlem Shuffle,’” recalls Ornelas, who has enjoyed session success in L.A. since the ’80s. “Afterwards I went up to him and said ‘hey, man, that was great. What was that one thing you kept doing?’ And Bobby stood right in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders and he showed me [the beat], with the right hand being the bass drum and the left hand being the snare.” When Ramirez heard a cool twist from Ornelas, Willie would show Bobby the same way. Sometimes when they drove, one would sit behind the other and show him new beats on the shoulders. Then they’d pull over and change seats. “We did that for years,” Ornelas says. “You know, we were both good drummers, but Bobby was the real talent. I’ve never bullshitted myself on that point. Bobby had a feel that we all could duplicate technically, but it was real for him.”
Born in Mexico, Ramirez was raised near the oil refineries in Port Arthur in a large, working class household. He became hooked on drums since the first time his uncle let him mess around on his kit. P.A.’s proximity to the Louisiana border, where the drinking age was 18, proved essential to the education of young Bobby. Vinton, Louisiana, had such hotspots as Big Oaks Club, Lou Anne’s, and the Texas Pelican Club, where drummers could make a lot more money than factory workers or farmhands. The music was for dancing, so every band played soul music, rock stuff, some ballads for slow dances, some Fats Domino to remind everybody what state they were in. If you had horns, your man was Bobby Blue Bland, whose drummer Starks was a Ramirez role model. “If you couldn’t play ‘Turn On Your Love Light,’ you couldn’t work,” Ornelas said.
Ramirez was also heavily influenced by Louisiana drummer Clint West (nee Guillory), who led the Boogie Kings until 1965. “Clint West used to set up his drums at the front of the stage, with the band behind him,” laughed Ornelas. “We thought that was the coolest.”
When West split from the Boogie Kings (losing the band’s name in a court battle with the other members), LaCroix took over the raucous swamprock party band and tapped Ramirez to replace his idol. Finally making some decent pay, Ramirez dropped out of high school to tour. After a few stints in Las Vegas with the Kings, word got out on Ramirez and he was hired to play some dates with Ike and Tina Turner, then a more extended gig with Hawaiian singer Dick Jensen. Ramirez was in Hawaii when he got the call to join Edgar Winter’s band. “Bobby was making something like $750 a week with Dick Jensen, but he quit that to make $50 a week to play with Edgar and Jerry,” said Ornelas. Bobby Ramirez wanted to rock out, Golden Triangle style.
He played on the first two White Trash albums, including live LP Roadwork, which has become a favorite YouTube stop for drummers, especially “Love Light” and the gospel-fueled “Save the Planet.” “When I met [iconic modern drummer] Steve Gadd and I told him I used to play with White Trash, he said [excitedly] ‘Is that you on ‘Save the Planet?,’” said Ornelas. “That was a big drum part for him. And I said, ‘no, that was my brother Bobby Ramirez.’ I didn’t think, like ‘oh, why didn’t he say one of my tracks?’ I was proud to tell him about Bobby. He was on his way, man. He was going to be one of the all-time greats.”
For years, LaCroix declined to talk about that dreadful night of July 24, 1972, in Chicago. It hurt too much. LaCroix and Ramirez were quite a soulful tandem and the chemistry continued offstage. In 2000, the Louisiana-born/Texas-raised singer finally opened up in an interview that was later posted on www.swampland.com.
Edgar Winter disbanded White Trash in ’72 to assemble the group, with Ronnie Montrose and Dan Hartman, that recorded “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride,” so his former mates toured as LaCroix. They had just played a great set opening for Uriah Heep in Chicago and went out to see an all-girl band called Bertha whom they had met months earlier in L.A. It was a great, fun night for everybody.
“The show was over and Bobby went downstairs to take a leak,” LaCroix recalled. “Our road manager came back upstairs and anxiously reported that Bobby had had an altercation in the bathroom.” A Hispanic man with short, slicked-back hair had remarked that, because of his long hair, Ramirez should be in the ladies’ room, which led to cross words, then a punch to the face that bloodied the drummer’s nose. Bouncers heard the ruckus and broke it up, but the club manager declined to call the police. LaCroix said he tried to get Ramirez “to just blow if off, but he couldn’t believe that someone could assault him in a public place and get away with it!” Ramirez went outside to look for the guy who punched him.
But it turned out that the man had friends and when Ramirez turned the corner, they jumped him and kicked him in the head over and over with their pointed, steel-toe shoes. LaCroix was also beaten when he tried to help. As he sat up in his fog, LaCroix saw Ramirez, his face a pulpy mess, cradled on the ground by the group’s manager. It’s not known if the assailants were ever caught.
Why did this have to happen? It made no sense. These guys were not fighters, they were musicians. And now one of them was dead and the rest had to carry on with such a tragic memory. Death has no groove whatsoever.
“There’s hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about dear Bobby and what 1,000 things I could have done differently,” LaCroix said in 2000. The Bob Seeger of Southeast Texas, LaCroix died in May 2014 at age 70. The great drummer Bobby Ramirez would be in his 60s if he had lived. And he’d still be playing, you can be sure.
This is an excerpt of “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” (UNT Press)