Dick Ramberg relied on his heart to make music.
Blind since he was a toddler, Ramberg graduated from Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, earned two master’s degrees at the University of Minnesota, and for a half-century entertained audiences across the state, the nation and the world with his clarinet and at the piano as part of the Barbary Coast Dixieland Show Band.
Ramberg, of Edina, died March 7 of cancer. He was 72.
“The way he played the clarinet was just from the heart,” said banjo and guitar player Dick Petersen, a fellow band member since its founding in 1967. “He didn’t play notes; he played from the heart.”
Petersen said he never heard Ramberg complain about the tumors on his retinas that stole his sight or about his repeated bouts with cancer, which eventually ended his performing days in October.
“I’ve never met a stronger man in my life,” Petersen said. “He was very stoic and a very positive person with a very keen sense of humor.”
It was humor that Ramberg used to put others at ease about his blindness.
In what became a signature shtick, band member Jim ten Bensel said, the band’s closing would often include Petersen asking the audience, “How many have seen the Barbary Coast before?” Some hands would rise above the crowd.
Then Petersen would ask, “How many have never seen the Barbary Coast?” Up went Ramberg’s hand.
“It happened by accident the first time,” Ten Bensel said, “and it was such a good bit that we kept it in.”
Ramberg would do what he could to not clue in audience members that he was blind, said Ten Bensel, the band’s trombonist and cornet player.
“He hid his blindness all the time. He never did a show with him being led out on stage. He would sneak out around to the piano and start to play.”
Even after illness forced him from the band last fall, Ramberg insisted on keeping close tabs on how the guys were doing. While the band was performing in Florida, he reviewed a DVD of one show, and “one by one, he critiqued every song,” Petersen said.
During the audience sing-along, Ramberg could tell it “was a mess,” Petersen added. “ ‘Learn the words. Learn the words,’ ” he recalled Ramberg scolding. “We were faking the words a little too much for him.”
In the mid-1980s, the band started playing more often before church audiences in what Petersen called “a vision for all of the band members.”
“The hymn ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ was Dick’s signature tune,” Petersen said. “No one played it like him.”
The Barbary Coast is now retiring the New Orleans spiritual, a staple among many a Dixieland band.