Bart Ramsey began his music career in the Chicago area during the 1960s at the age of six. He took his father's speechpracticing cassette player and bootlegged songs he liked off the radio, then played them over and over again. These early lowfidelity recordings usually lacked the first half of the first verse of every song, a shortcoming he has fought to overcome on his own recordings.
He continued on his musical odyssey by taking piano lessons for a year at the age of nine. He mustve had a sophisticated piano teacher, because by Christmas time he could play a few Christmas tunes, as well as 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, and 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, however poorly, while riding his bicycle nohanded.
Essentially, Ramsey made a hash of growing up, and then 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 beneathsealevel city. A Yugoslavian cargo boat carried him from Houston to Casablanca. His hitchhiking skills came in handy for crossing the Sahara desert, and he contracted malaria at every opportunity.
In a Cameroonian highland town he joined his first band, the Jark Brothers. Thus his education as a music performer began. At the time, both the previous keyboard player and rhythm guitarist had just fled from the oppressive twomonthlong barroom residency at the Vicky Club, making off with the bandleaders 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, a Nigerian who was also the lead singer and owner of all the equipment, outfitted Ramsey with a pair of platform shoes to keep him in step with the bands image.
But 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. Ramsey got a nasty infection on his foot. The West African rains kicked in. One evening at the club, Ramsey 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 countrys military regime sided with the club owner since he had paid them off, as was the custom. They threatened to put the Jark Brothers in jail if they left town without playing for another month as a quintet, for no money. The only alternative was for the band leader to surrender to the club owner all of the band's equipment; guitar, organ, microphones, amplifiers, the lot.
But one midnight soon after, the band rounded up all the gear and escaped from town in a bushtaxi. The bushtaxi driver, who was one of the bandleaders fellow expatriate Ibo tribesmen, sped them through the hills in the darkness. The next village was a hundred and fifty kilometers away. The band was optimistic. The rainy season, however, had recently kicked in. The dirt roads were soup. The trip took eighteen hours. Palm wine tappers surfaced from the forest to help them along. At one point Ramsey, covered in mud, witnessed the miracle of pushstarting a vehicle stuck in two feet of mud during a torrential rain.
Finally the Jark Brothers slipped through the last military roadblock and reached the lowland village. Another one of the bandleaders Ibo tribesmen led them through the twilight shadows and hid them in a dirtwall storage hut alongside a pile of 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, and headed on a jungle path along the river. They carried the amplifiers and other gear on their heads. In the mosquitoinfested 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 wistfully surrendered his platform shoes.
The musicians settled on the edge of civilwartorn Enugu. They struggled for months, playing the occasional whorebar. Then came their big break. They landed the New Years Eve gig at the Presidential Hotel. They were psyched. They showed up. They played. The band was tight. The crowd kept growing. The audience danced till dawn. 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 had managed to run off with the bands 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 having no cash. He also complained about the band leaders recent girlfriend, the new backup singer who he said couldnt sing 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.