By Christopher Daniel
Considering legendary pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis has enjoyed six decades in the music business, he still effortlessly has that innate sense of urgency and passion for practicing and performing. “I’m looking at my piano as we speak,” says the charming 80-year-old musician via phone from his Chicago apartment. “I still spend anywhere from two to six hours a day at the piano when I’m not on the road. I got some musical ideas in my head. I need to get over there and write them down.”
It feels like yesterday since Lewis released his espressivo rendition of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd” 50 years ago. The Grammy-winning single crossed over onto the Top Five for both pop and R&B. The Windy City native’s album of the same name was recorded live at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C., earning Lewis his first gold record. It was a waitress at a coffee shop who suggested to Lewis and his trio that they consider performing the song.
That decision to record “The In Crowd” turned out to be what Lewis says is “one of the most wonderful moments of his life.” “When ‘The In Crowd’ became a hit record, it was very unexpected,” he says over loud bulldozing noises. “We were looking for one more tune to play on the album. We didn’t know what that should be.” That same year, The Ramsey Lewis Trio released another live recording, “Hang on Ramsey!”, taped at Hermosa Beach, CA’s The Lighthouse. The easygoing instrumentalist was accustomed to releasing at least two projects per year since debuting with Ramsey Lewis & His Gentleman of Jazz album on Chess Records in 1956.
Little did Lewis know, flooding the market with a slew of projects was a bold move for recording artists, adding that promotion, marketing and touring had to configure into the equation. “When we started recording in the ‘50s, we were putting out a record every six months,” recalls the performer whose subsequent hits included “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.” “Nobody told us that’s too often. We had no idea that people would get so into the music.” Like many of Lewis’s jazz contemporaries, playing new versions of standards and popular material is something he takes pride in.
Lewis, who was exposed to various musical styles by attending a multicultural high school and playing in church, is not a big fan of the term “cover songs.” “I was able to play what I felt comfortable with,” he adds. “It was how you felt about the song. All of the masters not only did original music, but they did music from Broadway and Hollywood. If it was a great song, it’s fair play to record it.”
Another memorable gold disc Lewis earned was for his funky 1973 LP, “Sun Goddess”. Recorded along with the massively successful band Earth, Wind and Fire (EWF), the groove-laden album was made over a three-day period in Chicago. Lead singer Maurice White, the one-time drummer in the second lineup of the trio, insisted that the music he produced for Lewis would be “bigger than ‘The In Crowd’.” The album’s semi-instrumental title track, with its refraining ad-libs and breezy R&B melody-meets-Latin rhythms, struck a chord with listeners, going onto become of the most sampled cuts for hip-hop and R&B artists.
Chuckling to himself, Lewis, who went on to host his own syndicated radio program, The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show, and a PBS series, “Legends of Jazz”, remembers receiving numerous calls from music publishers about his past recordings. “It’s a compliment,” urges Lewis, whose music has been sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, Goodie Mob, Beck and E-40 among others. “I appreciate that young artists can relate to what it was I was doing to the point they want some of my licks on their record. It helps an old man with his bank account, too (chuckles).”
Lewis recently released his 80th album, “Take Another Look”, a reissue of his “Sun Goddess” LP with 10 tracks total and three bonus cuts. He re-recorded all but the title track, settling on re-editing the song instead because of EWF’s touring schedule. “It’s one of my favorite pieces because it brings back memories recording it,” says Lewis, “so I wanted to take another look.” Take Another Look was released under Lewis’s latest jazz imprint under Sony Music and Red Distribution, Ramsey’s House.
The deal gives Lewis, formerly a Columbia Records artist, full freedom as an A&R executive. A relationship between his management and the parent company is responsible for the partnership. Sony is fully funding all efforts for Ramsey’s House while the Stellar- and NAACP Image Award winner and his team work to concoct the appropriate marketing strategies. “I’m just really happy about it,” says the jovial NEA Jazz Master. “There are a lot of talented young people out here that need a break, to be heard and recorded.”
Helping young musicians is where Lewis devotes a great deal of his time and energy. The humanitarian with memorabilia at the Smithsonian has been the Artistic Director for the Ravina Festival for 24 years. Sharing that he started taking music seriously by the time he was 12 years old, Lewis partners with musical directors to assist with keeping jazz music preserved in public schools and to grow those departments. For his 80th birthday, Lewis wrote a concerto for a jazz trio and orchestra.
“In anyway that I can, I try to reach out and help young people,” reiterates Lewis, who joined his first band, The Cleffs, when he was 15. “I was born and raised in a neighborhood where we needed help.”
To further commemorate the release of “The In Crowd” and “Hang on Ramsey!”, Lewis is excited about playing on his Steinway Concert Grand in his favorite cities like Atlanta. He flashes back to performing in venues like La Carousel Lounge in the early stages of his career. Performing “The In Crowd” is something Lewis has attempted to eliminate from his repertoire because he thought his audience was tired of it. It’s a decision the laid back musician that originally wanted to be a mathematician or scientist knows would’ve been a bad one.
“I tried a couple of concerts when I didn’t play it at the end of the show,” recalls Lewis. “People would not leave. It’s a wonderful experience having recorded that song. It’s a wonderful thing that I was able to do songs that I like.”
Christopher A. Daniel is an award-winning journalist and culture critic currently residing in Atlanta, GA. In addition to being a regular soulhead.com contributor, he is the music & pop cultural editor for The Burton Wire, which covers news around the African Diaspora. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.