Ramey was born in Colby, Kansas. He studied music in high school and college. After further study in Central City and Santa Fe, he went to New York where he had his first breakthrough at the New York City Opera. As his repertoire expanded, he spent more and more time in the theatres of Europe, notably in Berlin, Hamburg, London, Paris, Vienna, the festivals of Aix-en-Provence, Glyndebourne, Pesaro, and Salzburg.
In January, 1984, Ramey made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Handel's Rinaldo. He has since become fixture at the La Scala, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the New York City Opera, and the San Francisco Opera.
In the bel canto repertoire, Ramey has excelled in Mozart's Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro and in Rossini's Semiramide, The Barber of Seville, Turco in Italia, L'Italiana in Algeri; in Donizetti's Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini's I Puritani.
Other dramatic roles have included Verdi's Nabucco, Don Carlo, I Lombardi and Jerusalem and Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman (all four villains). A number of previously obscure operas with strong bass-baritone roles have been revived solely for Ramey, such as such as Verdi's Atilla, Rossini's Maometto II, and Massenet's Don Quichotte.
Ramey has made a huge number of recordings, including nearly all of his operatic roles as well as collections of arias, symphonic works, and crossover discs of popular American music. He has also appeared on television and video productions of the Met's Carmen and Bluebeard's Castle, San Francisco's Mefistofele, Glyndebourne's The Rake's Progress and Salzburg's Don Giovanni.
In 1996, Ramey gave a concert at New York's Avery Fisher Hall titled "A Date with the Devil" in which he sang fourteen arias representing the core of this repertoire, and he continues to tour this program throughout the world. In 2000, Ramey presented this concert at Munich's Gasteig Concert Hall. This performance was recorded live and was released on compact disc in summer 2002.
Ramey lives in Chicago and participates in some seventy performances a year.