Bart Ramsey began his music career in the Chicago area during the 1960s at the age of six. He took his father’s speech-practicing cassette player and bootlegged songs he liked off the radio, then played them over and over again. These early low-fidelity recordings lacked the first half of the first verse of every song, a shortcoming he has fought to overcome during later recordings.
He continued on his musical odyssey by taking piano lessons for a year at the age of nine. He had a sophisticated piano teacher, because by Christmas time he could play the barroom classic, “In the Cellar of Murphy’s Saloon.”
He then took a long sabbatical from the piano to play maulball and grow his hair shaggy. He discovered shoplifting, poker, hitchhiking, and hanging out on street corners. He learned all he knows about business in general from his three years as a paperboy. Unfortunately.
A few years later he picked up a small guitar, which he learned how to play badly while riding his bicycle no-handed.
Ramsey made a hash of growing up. Then he moved to New Orleans to attempt life as an adult.
Soon enough the existential hum grew deafening in his ears, and he journeyed away from the beneath-sea-level city. A Yugoslavian cargo boat carried him from Houston to Casablanca. His hitchhiking skills came in handy for crossing the Sahara desert. He contracted malaria at every opportunity.
In a Cameroonian highland town he joined his first band, the Jark Brothers. Thus his education as a gigging musician began. He joined the band after the previous keyboard player and rhythm guitarist fled from the oppressive two-month-long barroom residency at the Vicky Club, making off with the bandleader’s electric guitar and a microphone. Ramsey took over the keyboard duties and threw in a little mouth harp to help finish the contract. The bandleader, who was the Nigerian lead singer and owner of all the equipment, outfitted Ramsey with a pair of platform shoes to keep him in step with the band’s image.
Hard times followed. The Jark Brothers had been paid in advance by the club owner. The band members splurged and were soon broke. The lads lived on avocado and banana sandwiches. The West African rains kicked in. Ramsey developed a nasty infection on his foot. One evening at the club, he experienced his first barroom brawl.
Weeks later the band completed the contract. But the clever club owner had found a loophole. Since two of the original Jark Brothers had cut out, and only one, in this case Ramsey, had replaced them, the band had become smaller than promised and thus the contract had technically not been fulfilled. Local authorities of the country’s military regime sided with the club owner since he had paid them off, as was the custom. Authorities threatened to put the Jark Brothers in jail if they left town, unless the band agreed to play for another month as a quintet, for no money. The alternative was for the bandleader to surrender all of the band’s equipment to the club owner: guitar, organ, microphones, amplifiers, the lot.
One midnight soon after, the band rounded up all the gear and escaped from town in a bushtaxi. The bushtaxi driver, one of the bandleader’s fellow expatriate Ibo tribesmen, sped them through the hills in the darkness. The next village was a hundred and eighty kilometers away. The band seemed optimistic. Yet the rainy season persisted. The dirt roads had gone to soup. The trip took eighteen hours. Palm wine tappers surfaced from the forest to help them along. Ramsey witnessed his first miracle when the band push-started the bushtaxi while it was stuck in the mud during a torrential rain.
Finally the Jark Brothers slipped through the last military roadblock and reached the lowland village of Kumba. Another one of the bandleader’s Ibo tribesmen led them through the twilight shadows. The band laid low in a dirt-walled storage hut alongside a pile of dirt-caked yams. Local gendarmes, who had been notified by authorities up in the highland town, searched for the band into the night, carrying flashlights and rifles. Before dawn the band skulked out of the hut in the dark. They headed single file down a jungle path along the river, carrying the amplifiers and other gear on their heads. In the mosquito-infested dawn they boarded a dugout that floated them downriver, into the backreaches of Nigeria. Because Ramsey and the Cameroonian musicians had no visas to enter legally, the authorities needed a bribe. Ramsey surrendered his platform shoes.
The musicians settled on the edge of civil-war-torn Enugu. They struggled for months, playing the occasional whorebar. Then came their big break. They landed the New Year’s Eve gig at the Presidential Hotel. They were psyched. They showed up. They played. The audience danced all night. The Jark Brothers’ future suddenly seemed bright. They had arrived.
But the vicissitudes of showbiz prevailed. During that heaving night at the Presidential Hotel someone managed to run off with the band’s door earnings. Morale sunk among the musicians. Their famed lead guitarist, Zabotounga, declared himself fed up with idle promises, the unsteady diet of fufu, and lack of cash. He also complained about the bandleader’s recent girlfriend, the new backup singer who he said sang like a frog and danced like a tree. The band disintegrated.
At that point, on a dirt road heading nowhere with a harmonica in his hand, young Ramsey resolved to make music his life work.