The legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis has had a career many artists would envy. Lewis is acknowledged as one of the first jazz crossover acts and songs like “The In Crowd,” “Sun Goddess” and his albums from the 1970s are a rich mosaic of his inimitable sound matched with his maverick spirit.
Lewis started playing the piano at four years old. Not surprisingly, Lewis’ studious and well-versed musical style also came from the halls of academia: Lewis studied classical piano at the Chicago School of Music and DePaul University. In his 20s, Lewis was a member of the Clefs, which also featured bassist Eldee Young and drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt.
In 1956, Lewis was signed to Argo/Cadet Records. The Ramsey Lewis Trio (Lewis, Eldee Young, and “Redd” Holt) launched their recording career in the same year with Ramsey Lewis and His Gentleman of Swing and Ramsey Lewis and His Gentleman of Jazz. Between 1960 and 1964, the Ramsey Lewis Trio recorded such accessible albums as Never on a Sunday, Barefoot Sunday Blues, and the popular Sounds of Christmas.
By the mid ‘60s, Lewis had begun to derive the majority of his success from live albums. More so than many other acts, the live milieu brought out an earthiness and immediacy in Ramsey Lewis’ playing on both 1964’s Live at the Bohemian Caverns and the most popular of the style, 1965’s The In Crowd.
Although Cadet Records often filled the shelves with efforts like Goin’ Latin, Bossa Nova, Bach to Blues, and the best albums like The In Crowd, Hang on Ramsey, and Wade in the Water, all went gold due to Lewis’ unique cross section of jazz and R&B fans. In 1966, the Ramsey Lewis Trio had a personnel shift with Isaac “Redd” Holt and Eldee Young being replaced by Maurice White and Cleveland Eaton respectively.
By 1968, the live albums in the “In Crowd” finger-popping style had grown stale and Lewis moved on to doing more experimental and atmospheric work. Up Pops Ramsey and especially Maiden Voyage reflected the change. In late 1968, Lewis did the an intriguing album that featured him performing some songs from the Beatles White Album. Mother Nature’s Son was produced and arranged by Charles Stephney and had Lewis doing nearly baroque work on songs such as “Julia” and the title track, and offered a swinging version of “Blackbird.” Lewis closed his Cadet days out with the tough Them Changes and the all but forgotten Back to the Roots.
During this era, drummer Maurice White left the Ramsey Lewis Trio and was replaced by Morris Jennings. In 1970, Cadet released the fine The Best of Ramsey Lewis, which found him a variety of moods ranging from the esoteric “Les Fleurs” (with vocals from Minnie Riperton) to the hand-clapping immediacy of “Dancing in the Streets,” and a gritty and cosmopolitan cover of “Soul Man.”
Lewis signed to Columbia Records in 1971. At the time, the label was known for other jazz acts like Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson and later, Herbie Hancock. Although some fans might have missed the familiarity and the varied concepts of the Cadet albums, Columbia Records offered a bigger recording and promotional budget and a chance for Lewis to be on one of the music’s biggest labels.
Ramsey Lewis continued with the late ’60s version of The Ramsey Lewis Trio and he released his first Columbia title, Upendo Ni Pamoja in 1972. Albums like Funky Serenity, Newly Recorded Non-Stop Greatest Hits, and Solar Wind soon followed. This version of the Ramsey Lewis Trio also appeared on the soundtrack and film 1973’s Save the Children.
1974’s Sun Goddess found Ramsey Lewis attracting more youthful R&B and funk audience. The brilliant and influential title track was produced by Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire performed on the song. “Sun Goddess” was an immediate milestone and featured Lewis playing a battery of up to the minute synthesizers. Sun Goddess also proved that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Lewis was very adroit with the Fender Rhodes and synthesizers and had created another readily identifiable style to go along with his acoustic piano playing.
The mid- to late ’70s kicked off a commercially and musically successful run for Lewis. 1975’s Don’t It Feel Good had Lewis getting even more comfortable with the newer sounds and the effort had the title track, “What’s The Name of The Funk” and the moody ballad, “Juaacklyn.” The best of the album displayed the talent and camaraderie Lewis had with his longtime producer and arranger, Charles Stepney. 1976’s Salongo was produced by Maurice White and Stepney, and followed a similar path with an album filled with Brazilian and pan-African excursions like “Brazilica” and the title track, and emotional ballads like “The Seventh Fold” and “Nicole.” Sadly, Salongo was the last album Lewis would work on with Charles Stepney, who passed away from a heart attack in 1976.
Lewis’ late 1970s albums were a success on the R&B charts as well as the jazz charts. 1977’s Tequila Mockingbird reflected the disparate audiences. The album had Lewis splitting the production duties between Earth Wind and Fire alum Larry Dunn and New York producer Bert DeCoteaux.
By 1978, it seemed that Lewis’ albums weren’t selling like they once were. He released the varied Ramsey in 1979, featuring the classic ballads “I’ll Always Dream About You” and “I Just Can’t Give You Up.”
By this point if there were any complaints, it was that Lewis might have been too prolific. Albums like Legacy, Routes, and Three Piece Suite came and went. One of the most notable titles of this time was Reunion, which found Lewis reuniting with original Ramsey Lewis Trio members Eldee Young and Redd Holt for a strong live set.
In 1984, Ramsey Lewis teamed up with Nancy Wilson for The Two of Us. Although it wasn’t a full duet album, Lewis and Wilson collaborated on the title track, ”Never Gonna Say Goodnight,” and “Midnight Rendezvous.” Despite the album’s success, Lewis’s last few albums for Columbia, including We Meet Again and Urban Renewal, were low sellers, and Lewis left the label in 1989 after nearly 20 years. In 1992, he signed to the jazz label GRP and released 1992’s Ivory Pyramid and 1993’s Sky Island. The two albums in particular showed that Lewis retained his personal stamp even as styles and recording techniques and productions had changed. In 1994, Lewis became a member of the popular jazz all-star group Urban Knights. The group’s early albums, Urban Knights and Urban Knights II, were produced by Maurice White.
Ramsey Lewis made an appearance on Guru’s 1995 album Jazzmatazz and appeared on the track “Respect The Architect,” which featured him playing Moog synthesizer. Lewis left GRP and signed to Narada Records in the late ‘90s, and a few years later issued more Urban Knights titles as well as solo albums. Lewis reunited with friend Nancy Wilson for two well-received albums, 2002’s Meant to Be and 2003’s Simple Pleasures. More recent titles include 2005’s One Voice, 2009’s Songs From the Heart, and 2011’s Taking Another Look, issued on Hidden Beach Records.
Unlike some other jazz acts, Lewis’ work has remained in print. His Cadet years are covered on 2000’s Finest Hour, and his stint on Columbia Records is featured on compilations such as 2001’s The Electric Collection and 2004’s Love Songs. The erudite Lewis has often been featured on television and radio programs of the scholarly variety. In 2006, he hosted the Legends of Jazz television program, and in 2007 Lewis received the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master award.
Ramsey Lewis continues to tour.
Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist.