Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 17th 1931, Bill Ramsey grew up with the abundance of musical styles found in the "Queen City" of the thirties and forties. At home, music played an important role. Bill's father, a talented amateur pianist, played the classics and enjoyed listening to jazz; his two teenage sisters were avid collectors of the records of the big bands of the era: Benny Goodman; Glenn Miller; Artie Shaw; Ellington; Basie. The great folk artist, John Jacob Niles, was a close family friend and frequent visitor; an early influence on Bill's musical tastes. But the sounds of the city were the ones that eventually formed Bill's deepest musical interests. Headquarters of KING Records, famous for Jazz, Blues, R&B and Country -- all of which were daily fare for the city's five or six radio stations -- Cincinnati was also a favorite venue for the big bands, and its downtown clubs offered plenty of swinging, live music.
His first real exposure to 'live' jazz came on a trip with his father to New York and a visit to Café Society Downtown, where Meade 'Lux' Lewis, Albert Ammons and Hazel Scott were the stars, and it was not long after that visit that Bill began playing a little "Boogie", by ear. Later, his love of vocal jazz took over and he began singing the blues -- and studying the work of the famous jazz singers. His favorites? Jimmy Rushing, Louis Jordan, Fats Waller. Folk singers like Josh White and Big Bill Broonzey. Leadbelly. The great Joe Williams (who would later become a life-long friend and mentor). They all added bits and pieces to the musical mosaic that would become the Bill Ramsey style. As his interest grew, so did his repertoire. Ella. Nat Cole. Dinah Washington. Billy Eckstine. Bill listened -- and sang whenever and wherever he got the chance.
When the Korean War broke out, Bill was studying Sociology at Yale. He enlisted in the Air Force and, instead of being sent to Korea, found himself in Frankfurt, Germany, a city that had developed an especially lively postwar jazz scene and was beginning to create some major jazz names (Albert Mangelsdorff; Vera Auer; Atilla Zoller) as well as attract established stars like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Don Menza and Dave Amram. In a short time, Bill was part of that scene.
His work in the Air Force as "Chief Producer" AFN-Frankfurt, the key station of the American Forces Network, kept him busy with the world of Jazz. His boss, Programm Director Johnny Vrotsos, also functioned as Norman Granz' partner for the Frankfurt area and gave Bill the assignment of supervising the recording of the big Jazz Concerts that came to the area (Count Basie; Duke Ellington; Louis Armstrong; Stan Kenton -- to name a few). After recording a terrific "Jazz at the Philharmonic", Bill was invited to join Vrotsos. Granz and some of the musicians, including Ella Fitzgerald, for a nightcap. At the hotel bar, much to his embarassment, Vrotsos and some of his AFN colleagues asked Bill to sing for the JATP stars. After the first chorus, Ella turned to Vrotsos and said: "All you got to do is close your eyes." For her, Bill was -- at least acoustically -- black. As far as Bill was concerned, it was "the greatest compliment I've ever had".
Again, it was Johnny Vrotsos who encouraged and helped Bill to appear at military and civilian Jazz events, which led to his appearance at the 1st and 2nd German American Jazz Festivals in Nürnberg, singing with Germany's top big band: the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra. Even as a GI, Bill became so well-known to the German jazz public that in 1954, still in unifrom, he was voted the number two jazz vocalist in Germany by the magazine "Gondel" (then Germany's "Downbeat").
Taking his discharge in Germany, Bill entered Frankfurt's University and continued his jazz activities, on the side. In May, 1955, he appeared at the German Jazz Festival -- the first American to do so -- with the Jutta Hipp Combo, and, later that summer, made it another first by touring Yugolslavia with one of Germany's top traditional bands, the "Two Beat Stompers".
To augment a meager GI-Bill income, Bill appeared regularly on weekends as a blues- and folk-singing MC at military clubs throughout Germany and France. During this time he also appeared in two German films. At the end of 1955, he returned to the United States for a short period, before coming back to Germany, permanently, in 1957. In two years, not much had changed. He returned to the University, played the clubs -- and spent every free evening jamming in Frankfurt's famous "Domicile du Jazz".
Through 1957, Bill concentrated on jazz, appearing with the "Two Beat Stompers" at the German Jazz Festival; Later joining the "Frankfurt All Stars" on another Jazz Federation tour, this time to Poland, starting with the "2nd Sopot Jazz Jamboree" and ending up at the Culture Palace in Warsaw. A live recording of the Sopot concert (released on the Polske Nagrania label and now a collector's item in Poland) has recently been reissued (September 1997) as part of a compilation CD "Caeldonia & More", Bear Family Records BCD 16151. Only two weeks after the Polish tour, Bill appeared in Scheveningen, Holland at a concert arranged by Paul Acket (founder of the North Sea Jazz Festival), performing with "Eric Kran's Dixieland Pipers" plus Albert Nicholas, Bill Coleman and Beryl Bryden. From this concert came his first single "Caldonia" and "Big Fat Mama" and first EP "Jammin' the Saints", released on Columbia, Holland.This too is part of the compilation CD "Caldonia & More".
A SLIGHT SHIFT IN FOCUS
About this time, Heinz Gietz, a jazzpianist-arranger and close friend who had gotten Bill started in German movies in 1955, asked if he would be interested in making a pop record. Gietz had become one of the most successful players in the German pop music scene. Composer, arranger and producer, Heinz Gietz had made his name working with such tops stars as Caterina Valente. Bill thought his proposition was interesting. Asked whether he would rather do rock and roll or something amusing, the jazz singer opted for the latter and his first recording was a moderate success. The second, the German cover version of "Purple People Eater", was a major hit. It was followed by a long string of top ten songs (no longer cover versions), written for Bill by his friend Gietz and two of Germany's most successful lyricists. Bill has recorded 50 singles, 30 LP's & CD's, hosted various musical and children's TV shows, appeared in countless TV and radio broadcasts and managed to act in 28 German, Austrian and Swiss films.
Bill's success as a pop singer had one negative fallout: jazz purists thoroughly dis- approved of the newly born "Entertainer" Ramsey, and for many years excluded him from their jazz scene. For an American, used to the blurred border between jazz and popular music (Ella; Satchmo; Sinatra), this was both a disappointment and an unpleasant surprise. However, his continued success throughout the German-speaking world as a popular, sought-after entertainer (who just happens to sing jazz very well) has led to "forgiveness", and the purists have, once again, embraced him in their world. Perhaps more important, Bill's pop audiences began to attend jazz concerts and to expect some jazz along with his old pop hits at every personal appearance.
BACK TO THE BASICS
These days, Bill only records occasionally -- and mostly jazz. Eight CD's are currently available: two compilations of the old hits "Souvenirs" and "Ohne Krimi geht die Mimi..."); the above-mentioned "Caldonia & More", a compilation of various early live jazz performances; two re-releases of jazz LP's: "When I See You" with Toots Thielemanns + Trio and one "The Other Side - Dedicated to Nat King Cole" with the Zürich Radio Orchestra; two recent productions with the Stuttgart Radio Big Band "Gettin Back to Swing" and "S'wonderful - The Songs of George Gershwin", a Gershwin 100th birthday tribute together with Etta Cameron; and finally, released in May 1999, "Hamburg keine ist wie Du", a tribute to his new home town and his favorite ship.
Over the years, even at the height of his commercial record career, Bill has continued to do jazz radio concerts and radio archive recordings with the big bands of the German, Austrian and Swiss radio networks. He has performed jazz on countless television shows, appearing with such bands as Ted Heath and Peter Herbolzheimer's Rhythm Combination and Brass. He has appeared, live, in concert (among many others) with Chris Barber, the Dutch Swing College, European Swing All-Stars, Charlie Antolini's Jazz Power, Rod Mason & his Hot Five and the Young Olympia Brass Band from New Orleans. He currently works with solo piano, trios and quartets and big bands with a main-steam repertoire that includes ballads, blues, standards and bop-scatting. He has always found his audience.
CHRONOLOGY OF A CAREER: A FEW HIGHLIGHTS
- A series of concerts, including the German Jazz Festival, with the great Kurt Edelhagen band, Germany; Holland; Belgium; the "Olympia", Paris; the Casino in Monte Carlo -- plus about 30 archive recordings for West German Network.
- First American jazzsinger to tour of Yugoslavia and appear at the "Polish Jazz Jamboree II" Sopot and Warsaw.
- TV Portrait for German First TV Program.
- "Nalen" Stockholm, with Stan Getz.
- First Jazz LP "Ballads & Blues" (COLUMBIA SMC 84065) Paul Kuhn, one of Germany's top jazz pianists and an international, All-Star Septett. The jazz critic for the magazine "Der Spiegel" (Germany's TIME) 21/66 wrote: "This is the best vocal jazz production in Germany since the war." - now on CD "Ballads & Blues and Songs From Home" Bear Family Records BCD 15693.
- National Television: "Not just a Pop Clown". A jazz-portrait of Bill Ramsey narrated by Siegfried Schmidt-Joos, Music Editor of "Der Spiegel".
- Jazz Festival, Prag, with Paul Kuhn (p), Pierre Favre (dr) and Jimmy Woode (bass). Live recording "Jazz Festival 1966" (SUPRAPHON, Prag 5 0101 H). Currently available on compilation CD " Caldonia & More".
- 11. Jazz Jamboree - Warsaw with Zbigniew Namyslowski Quartett.
- Jazz Festival - Zürich, presentation and as soloist with the Basie Alumni: Joe Newmann (tp); Hal Singer (ts); Gene "Mighty Flea" Conners (tb); Jimmy Woode (bs); Michael Silva (dr); Lennie Felix (p).
- Solo Evening, Austrian Radio (ORF), with ORF Big Band featuring Art Farmer.
- Developed, hosted and sang on series "Geheimtip" ("Insider Tip") for the German Third Programm, nine 45-minute shows, presenting well-known pop vocalists who were, unknown to the general public, excellent blues, jazz or jazz-rock singers. One of those was, of course Bill.
- Milan, "Frankfurt-Milano Culture Week". Jazz-rock concert in the Plaza de Scala.
- "Fabrik", Hamburg, presentation and soloist (among others) with Eric Clapton.
- Between 1978 and 1985, more than 250 live concerts and five television broadcasts with the jazz guitarist, Juraj Galan.
- December 1980, LP "Ramsey & Galan - Live im Mainzer Unterhaus" (Stockfisch SF 5027). Awarded German Jazz Critics' Prize. It is also on CD "Caldonia & More".
- December 1980, Digital-LP "When I See You" with Toots Thielemans (harmonica + guitar); Rob Franken (piano+ Hammond); Isla Eckinger (bass); Billy Brooks (dr) (LP JETON/ERUS digital 0907 332). Re-released and now available on CD BELL Records BLR 84022.
- "BIG BILL-Jazz with Bill Ramsey" German national and regional television.
- Guest-Professor (jazz-singing and presentation) at Hamburg Music and Drama University.
- German Television: "Bill Ramsey, a portrait", stressing and illustrating the realtionship between popular music and jazz.
- Over 100 concerts and 3 TV shows with the Ron Wilson Trio.
- Since 1984, co-founder, producer, director, host and occasional soloist for the annual Jazzband Ball, Kurhaus, Wiesbaden.
- Since 1985, host on the weekly radio show "Swing Party" Hessian Radio, Frankfurt -- one of the oldest jazz shows on German radio.
- Over 100 live concerts and three television shows with Ron Wilson Trio.
- Since 1985-89 President of the Association supporting the Landes Jugend Jazz Orchestra Hessen (Hessian Youth Big Band). Big band experience to young musicians (under 25). Bill was instrumental in arranging two TV shows, which he hosted and sang in. Also arranged a number of live concerts and two CD's (see below).
- April 90: CD/MC "Kicks & Sticks" with Landes Jugend Jazz Orchester Hessen (ARIS-BMG-ARIOLA 882 241) "It's All Right With Me" (Arr: John Clayton) and "I'd Rather Be a Gambler" (Arr: Bill Holmann).
- September 94: CD "Gettin' Back to Swing", Bear Family Records BCD 15813 AH. Big Band Swing with the Stuttgart Radio Big Band.
- September 95: Double-CD "celebration - 10 jahre LJJO" (LJJO-Label 260895) "Just The Way You Are".
- Metropol Theater, Vienna: two-week engagment "Bill Ramsey Show", jazz, jazz-rock, old hits. Taped for Austrian national television.
- "Barrelhouse" Jazz-Cruise (Mediterranean), MV Aegean Dolphin, together with Paul Kuhn (p), Gene "Mighty Flea" Conners (tb), Colin Dawson (tp), BARRELHOUSE and the EUROPEAN SWING ALL STARS.
- In November 1998, Bill sang at the "Salzburg Jazz-Fall", on the same program with his old friend and mentor, Joe Williams. And on December,13th he sang at Joe's 80th birthday party in Las Vegas -- at Joe's invitation !
- 1999 June 26th, "5th New Orleans Festival" Magdeburg with Achim Kück Quartett.
- November 11th, "7th Bremerhavener Jazzfestival" with Achim Kück Trio.
- November, "Musikprofessor Borstelmeier", cameo role, "Sesame Street", NDR Hamburg.
The new Millenium
- 2000 August 26th, "5th Köpenicker Jazz & Blues Festival" with Rolf Nordenskjöld Big Band.
- September 3rd, awarded the "Louis Blues Prize" at the "20th SWR Blues-Festival" (SWR = Southwest Radio). Short set with Achim Kück solo-piano.
- November, production "Why and How" Hip-Hop remix of a Mark Murphy original for UNIVERSAL/Jazz,
released in December.
- Recording CD "Ballads, Streets & Blues" with Peter Weniger and The Achim Kück Trio in Achim Kück's Studio, Bennigsen (near Hannover) Bill Ramsey production for MONS Records.
- November 11th, "14th International Sonneberger Jazz-Days" with The Thilo Wolf Big Band.
- November 18th, "Lübecker Jazz and Blues Night" with The Jazzand Ball Orchester (Krakau, Poland).
- 2001 April 17th, "70th Birthday Party" in the Kurhaus in Wiesbaden. Once again - as at the 50th, also in the Kurhaus in Wiesbaden - about 40,000 DM in gifts for UNICEF. MONS Label CD "Ballads, Streets & Blues" officially released.
- April 18th, "Bill Ramsey 70", TV portrait broadcast Germany, Austria, Switzerland by 3SAT.
- June 29th to July 1st, 3 concerts at the "Ascona New Orleans Jazzfestival" in Tessin,
Switzerland with The Jazzand Ball Orchester (Krakau, Poland).
- July 6th, "6th Köpenicker Jazz & Blues Festival" with Rolf Nordenskjöld Big Band.
- August 8th to 12th Nürnberg, Bavarian Radio Studios, CD production "Big Band Boogie - Bill Ramsey Meets The Thilo Wolf Big Band" for Reader's Digest, Bavarian Radio and MONS Records, produced by Thilo Wolf.
- August 19th, "Old Jazz Meeting" Ilawa (Masuren), Poland with The Jazzand Ball Orchester (Krakau, Poland).
- September 6th, Mainz, ZDF/3SAT, taping 90 minutes "Bill Ramsey Meets The Thilo Wolf Big Band" broadcast Germany, Austria, Switzerland at midday on December 27th.
- Bad Kissingen, "Kissingen Winter Musikfestival" with Jiggs Whigham anThe BBC Big Band.
- 2002 February 13th, in the Philharmonie, Munich and 24th in the Alte Oper, Frankfurt "Hot Jazz Meeting 2002" with Münster's Old Merry Tale Jazzband.
- June 29th to July 1st, 3 concerts at the "Ascona New Orleans Jazzfestival" in Tessin, Switzerland with the Paolo Tomelleri Big Band from Milan.
What's in the future?
- Keep on singing, keep on swinging...