Celebrated jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis has passed away. NPR‘s Gene Seymour discusses Lewis’s life and contribution to jazz, writing:
Ramsey Lewis, a pianist who sustained connections between jazz and popular music at a time when those bonds often seemed fragile and imperiled, died on Monday in Chicago, his hometown. He was 87.
His death was announced by his manager, Brett Steele, who cited natural causes.
Throughout his career, Lewis was the embodiment of jazz crossover. His affinity for gospel and blues tunes melded seamlessly with easygoing, unfettered forays into the rock and soul standards of the 1960s — a transaction that yielded major dividends with a trio album recorded at Washington D.C.’s fabled Bohemian Caverns in 1965. The title track of that album — “The ‘In’ Crowd,” a cover of Dobie Gray’s rhythm-and-blues hit from the previous year — made its own leap into the charts, spending 16 weeks on the Billboard Top 100 and rising as high as No. 5. The album spent 12 weeks in the top spot among best-selling R&B albums.
The rowdy, funky, hard-swinging acoustic jazz of Lewis, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt blended nicely with the wildly eclectic musical mélange making its way through the radio airwaves that summer of ’65, including the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself,” Tom Jones’ “What’s New, Pussycat?” and The Beatles’ “Help!” For his part, Lewis received not only chart success with “The ‘In’ Crowd” but also cultural acclamation: the song earned him the Grammy award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance.
Lewis built on his popular success later that year with Hang On, Ramsey! — another live trio album, recorded at the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, Calif. This time the playlist dug even deeper into the contemporary repertory, with a cover of “Hang On, Sloopy!” that reached No. 6 on the R&B chart and No. 11 on the pop chart. Two covers of songs by The Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “And I Love Her,” were included with more traditional standards like “Satin Doll” and “The More I See You.”
Towards the decade’s end, Young and Holt left the trio to form their own jazz combo. They were replaced by bassist Cleveland Eaton and drummer Maurice White. In 1974, Lewis reunited with White — a founder and architect of the seminal soul band Earth, Wind & Fire — to record Sun Goddess, an album whose emphasis fell on amplified instruments, prefiguring what we know as “smooth jazz.” That album topped Billboard‘s Top Soul Albums chart, and its title track became a hit single. Maurice White’s brother Verdine, a bassist with EWF, played and provided vocals on the album, as did the group’s lead vocalist, Philip Bailey.
Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis, Jr. was born on May 27, 1935, in Chicago. Growing up in the Cabrini-Green housing project, he began playing piano at age 4. He began his classical training at the Chicago Music College Preparatory School, while playing piano and organ in his local church. He carried the abiding influences of both his gospel and classical training into a stylistically eclectic yet rhythmically grounded approach to jazz.
“I lucked out,” Lewis told a Chicago Sun-Times interviewer in 2018, “because both my parents loved classical and gospel music. My dad loved jazz as well. So, I was hearing this music around the house since I was born.”
After apprenticing with local ensembles, Lewis joined a jazz group called The Clefs as a freshman at Chicago’s Wells High School. Young and Holt were a part of that combo before joining what was later known as the “classic” Ramsey Lewis Trio. They made their recording debut in 1956 with Ramsey Lewis and the Gentle-men of Swing, followed in 1957 by Ramsey Lewis and the Gentle-men of Jazz, Volume Two.
In all, Lewis recorded more than 80 albums, winning three Grammys and scoring five gold records. In 2007, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. He hosted a longtime syndicated radio show, Legends of Jazz, that was developed into a public television series in the mid-2000s.
Read more here.
If you’re willing to fight for Main Street America, click here to sign up for my free weekly email.