By Steve Sharp
CHICAGO -- Chicago's beloved, blues-singing Black Lone Ranger died Tuesday, March 17, 1998, from heart failure at the age of 66.
Only recently did the Black Lone Ranger make his true identity known. He was James Ramsey.
The Ranger performed frequently at Red's Lounge, and at the Checkerboard Lounge on the South Side. At the Board, he usually sat-in with Vance Kelly and the Backstreet Blues Band. Over the years, he also worked with Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, and J.W. Williams and the Chi-Town Hustlers, among others.
Ramsey took great pride in being the Black Lone Ranger. He was not playing a role. It was his life. He slept in his boots and claimed that he even showered with his mask on. The Ranger's guns were real and he owned a white horse named Trigger. Ramsey kept the animal on a farm south of Chicago.
The Black Lone Ranger was the perfect mix of light-heartedness and dedication to an ideal. In fact, Ramsey was such a hardcore Ranger that he found himself unable to respect perhaps the world's most well-known of Lone Rangers, Clayton Moore. He felt Moore lacked dedication.
"Clayton Moore didn't wear his mask except when he was doing the (television) show," the Ranger told Rocktober Magazine in 1996. "I will never (remove) my mask every day and every night until I go home!"
James Ramsey was born Feb. 1,1932, in Jackson, Miss. He later moved to Denver, Colo., and began working as a ranch hand at his uncle's horse farm. He quickly fell in love with his new life on the open range and adopted the lifestyle of a cowboy. He was the Lone Ranger for more than 40 years.
"It was like this," he told me in a 1994 conversation. "I listened at the radio all the time and every evening was the Lone Ranger. My idea was to be the Black Lone Ranger, so I made me a mask out a black jacket and I put it on and wore it around out there in the country -- way out in the country. My uncle was a sheriff at the time and he took me to town. I had my mask on and the big men said, 'Hey, what is this? The Lone Ranger?' He said, 'This is my nephew, the Black Lone Ranger. So all along, men would ask me the question, 'How do I feel as the Black Lone Ranger?' I told 'em, 'I feel fine.'"
The Black Lone Ranger fell in love with blues when he moved to Chicago in the 1950s and heard Muddy Waters playing on the South Side. He enjoyed Waters' style and material so much that he dedicated himself to learning to sing like Waters. Despite his years on the scene, however, the Ranger's only known recording is a four-song EP entitled "Truth Unmasked, recorded in 1995/1996 on the tiny Rocktober Records label. The platter captures the Ranger performing his favorites -- "Rock Me," "I'm A Man," "I Want You To Love Me," and McKinley Mitchell's "End of the Rainbow."
When he moved to Chicago from Colorado, Ramsey found employment as a Chicago police officer, but was disabled after being shot in the arm. In his later years, he worked as a handyman and night watchman at the Checkerboard Lounge.
Occasionally, the Black Lone Ranger was verbally hassled by teen-age gang members when he took to the streets of Chicago's South Side. With a mixture of anger, worry and hurt in his voice, the Ranger would brace against the heckling by looking straight ahead and muttering a barely audible, yet defiant "Hi-Yo Silver."
Ramsey's few survivors include his brother Kirk and Trigger.
Among those in attendance at Ramsey's funeral, held Sunday, March 22 at Taylor Funeral Home on 79th Street, were Billy Branch, J.W. Williams, Little Smokey Smothers and Melviena Allen. The Ranger was buried in full regalia.