Of all of Lester Butler’s various bands and gigs, Snake Snake may be the most mysterious.
But its roots go back to California’s bubbling hot, early 1980s blues scene.
“When I first met Lester he was just a friend of Hollywood Fats that would come around in the early ’80s,” Kid Ramos told nofightin.com recently. “I didn’t even know he played harmonica.”
At the time, Kid and Fats were the 1-2 guitar punch in the James Harman Band, which also boasted Willie J. Campbell on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums.
Ramos and Butler would share the stage a few years later in The Blue Shadows.
“He contacted me in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, I think it was and asked me to come sit with them at the King King,” Ramos recalled. “At that time Smokey Hormel was the guitar player and sometimes other people would play guitar. But it was Jonny Ray Bartel, Bill Bateman and … (Dave Lee) Bartel.”
“Lester was too hard for those guys to deal with and it sort of imploded,” he remembered. “Paul Size went back to Texas and I played some more gigs with the band as The Red Devils. Went to Holland and played some gigs over there. But with a different rhythm section.”
A few years later, it was Ramos’ turn to call Butler for a band he was putting together: Snake Snake.
“The Snake Snake idea came for me from that Lightnin’ Hopkins movie,” Ramos said of the band’s memorable moniker. In Les Blank’s 1969 documentary “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins,” the Texas guitar player and a neighbor come across a snake. After Hopkins badgers the man about what kind of snake it is — a kingsnake? a cobra? — the neighbor declares, “It’s a snake snake!”
Lightnin’ breaks the snake’s neck.
Like Lightnin’, Ramos’ band was going to take names and inflict damage.
“My idea was to play and record with Lester, Willie J. Campbell, and Stephen Hodges as Snake Snake as a raw, hard-edge blues unit,” Ramos said. “I even wrote a few songs with Lester but he then passed and it was not to be. A sad tale to be sure.”
This particular aggregation had some unusual family ties. Snake Snake was, essentially, Lester Butler fronting the James Harman Band circa mid-1980s. Or, even stranger, Butler filling in for Kim Wilson in the 2002 Fabulous Thunderbirds lineup. (Ramos/Campbell/Hodges overlapped as T-Birds for a year or so.)
Kid Ramos & Snake Snake played a handful of gigs over its short lifespan, all in 1997 during the height of Lester Butler’s 13:
- Friday, June 13, 1997, at Blue Cafe
- Saturday, Aug. 9, 1997, at Cafe Boogaloo
- Friday, Aug. 29, 1997, with Delta Ramblers at Hop City Blues & Brews, Anaheim, Calif. (This date conflicts with 13’s gig at the 7th South Blues Festival, Tamines)
- Friday, Nov. 7, 1997, at Hop City Blues & Brews
A couple of tapes from the Blue Cafe show survive, with the band stomping through numbers like “Shake ‘Em On Down,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and “Keep It To Yourself,” among some original grooves.
But those few gigs were enough to land Snake Snake at No. 106 on the OC Register’s 2003 list of the 129 greatest Orange County bands ever:
After three-quarters of a century of plodding I-IV-V chord changes, should blues music have even been allowed into this millennium? The short-lived Snake Snake might have made it fly. Comprising the late Lester Butler (the Red Devils, 13, et. al.), guitarist Kid Ramos, drummer Stephen Hodges and bassist Willie J. Campbell (all at one time in the James Harman Band), the group often didn’t even bother with the IV or V chords, instead just grinding on the 1 with a salacious verve. (The band name was from a Les Blank Lightnin’ Hopkins documentary, where a neighbor pesters Lightnin’ about what kind of snake he’s talking about, until Hopkins definitively declares, “It was a snake snake!”) The stellar instrumentalists created a thick swampy sound. Butler’s talents as a singer and harpist paled beside the likes of a Harman, but he did that manic-intensity bit real good up until April of 1998, when he evidently decided that dying of a heroin overdose was the way to go.
(The original Emy Lee-fronted rockabilly version of The Red Devils comes in at No. 108 on the list.)
Like so much of his career, Snake Snake remains a tantalizing “what if?” on Lester’s resume.