September 30, 2023

Remembering the first Asian American to Win a Grammy for October's Filipino American History Month

By Sharon Chan

Who was the first Asian American to win a Grammy? That would be Hilario “Larry” Ramos, who in 1963 won it for Best Performance by a Chorus as a member of the New Christy Minstrels.

Larry Ramos was a talented guitarist, banjo and ukulele player of Filipino descent who grew up in Hawaii. He was born on April 19, 1942 in Kauai. At the age of five he and his sister won a local music contest and at the age of seven he appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Show after winning a ukulele contest. In 1950, a talent scout, Arthur Freed, heard Larry singing and playing ukulele in front of his mother’s hotel gift shop and cast him in the film “Pagan Love Song” with Esther Williams. Unfortunately, the scene where he played while Esther sang “The House of Singing Bamboo” was cut from the film and can only be seen now in the outtakes part of the “TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Vol. 2” collection.

His family moved to Bell, California in the early 1950’s and after graduating high school he won the part of the crown prince in the nationwide tour of “The King and I” with Yul Brynner. In 1962, after the tour ended, hejoined the folk rock group the New Christy Minstrels.

He really stood out as the lone Asian in the group and had to deal with racial discrimination while touring, especially in the Deep South. He said “In the South, it was a prerequisite that I carry my ukulele” and that he had to explain that he was Hawaiian to hotel managers and others. “There weren’t any Asians at the time doing what I was doing. I was the only one. They’d probably never seen an Asian American up close before” he said. By 1966, the constant touring with the group led him to quit the band so he could be home with his wife and children.

Then in 1967, he joined the group The Association where he was the lead guitarist. Not long after joining, he performed with the group at the Monterey International Pop Festival (one of the major rock festivals of the 60s, which included Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and others).  As a member of the Association, he recorded five studio albums and several singles. He was one of the lead vocalists on the hit songs “Windy” (with Russ Giguere) and “Never My Love” (with Terry Kirkman).

He left the Association in 1975 (note some sources say it was either 1973 or 1976) but the group reformed in 1979 and he was considered its leader. He appeared with the Association in reunion shows and revivals until 2014.

“I always dreamed of working with all of the big stars – Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Julie Andrews – and I have! I’m just representing myself on stage, and if [that’s a positive representation for Asian Americans], then more power to that. I’m not looking to be a star. I’d just like people to say, ‘He played and sang well and he did his job well.’”

“I know I opened doors for a lot of Orientals, Asians and Filipinos. I know a lot of people don’t know who I was, but I’m flattered when people approach me and say that I was their inspiration for becoming a musician or entertainer.”

Larry Ramos died in Clarkston, Washington on April 30, 2014 at the age of 72.

For More Information

Wikipedia article on Larry Ramos

Rafu Shimpo newspaper's Guy Aoki's first article on Larry Ramos

Rafu Shimpo's Guy Aoki's second article on Larry Ramos

Rafu Shimpo's Guy Aoki's third article on Larry Ramos and Larry's brother Del

Rafu Shimpo's obituary for Larry Ramos

Also an acknowledgment to Larry's Association bandmate Terry Kirkman who died shortly before this article on Sept. 23, 2023. He wrote the beautiful songs “Cherish” and “Everything That Touches You.”