It is always a sad day when we hear about the passing of one of our musical elders. Yet we can joyfully continue to appreciate the gifts they blessed us with during their time on Earth: Their music lives on to uplift us. Consider Ramsey Lewis, who just joined the ancestors on Monday, Sept. 12 at the age of 87. As one of the most sampled musicians in history, he leaves behind more than 80 albums recorded, seven gold records, and he won three Grammy Awards. As a pianist, he cannot be pigeonholed musically: Lewis played jazz, blues, R&B, pop, and gospel. More importantly, he was beloved by the many people whose lives he touched over his long career.
That career included hosting the syndicated Legends of Jazz radio show on WNUA (95.5 FM) Chicago, and a PBS TV series with the same name. He also served as the artistic director of jazz at North America’s longest-running music festival, Ravinia, for a stunning 25 years.
During Lewis’ lifetime, consumption of jazz transformed. People used to dance to jazz before it became associated with simply “listening,” becoming far more “highbrow.” While some music critics might have scorned jazz that crossed over to popular listening, the listeners sure as hell didn’t. And Lewis opened the doors to jazz … to welcome us all in.
This Black Music Sunday, join me in a celebration of the gifts Ramsey gave us all.
Ramsey Lewis Jr. was born on May 27, 1935, in Chicago, Illinois, to Pauline and Ramsey Lewis Sr. He might never have gotten a chance to learn piano if he hadn’t fought for it as a preschooler.
Anne Aufderheide detailed Lewis’ early history for the November 2007 issue of Smooth Views.
His father was Gospel Chorus Director at the Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church. His mother, Pauline, and father had chosen young Ramsey’s six-year old sister, Lucille, to receive piano lessons. Mr. Lewis recalls, “I was on the floor of living room playing with some toy soldiers. I heard my parents telling my older sister, ‘We’d like you to start taking piano lessons.’ It was as if they were saying, ‘We’re taking you to get ice cream.’ They could have said ‘We want you to take violin lessons.’ Or ‘We want you to take tennis lessons.’ She was going to get to do something and I wanted to get to do it, too. They said, ‘We can only afford for one child.’”
How then did four-year old Ramsey also start piano lessons? So convincing were his incessant appeals that his family agreed he should have lessons, too. Lucille recalls both of them being “taken by the hand and led to the home of our church organist, Ernestine Bruce, who was a well-known piano teacher on the near north side of Chicago. One hour of practice at the piano was truly painful for me! Not so for Ramsey. He completed the beginner’s book months before I did. The teacher soon recognized that Ramsey was definitely gifted.”
Ramsey Lewis certainly had a natural ability. “But then I got bored. Oh, I liked the piano itself. I liked to sit at the piano. But I didn’t like to practice every day. Thankfully my parents, especially my dad, made sure that I did practice.”
Susan Windisch Brown picks up the next chapter of Lewis’ story in an early 2000s biography for Musician Guide.
[Lewis’] introduction to jazz came at 16, when he was invited to join the Clefs, a seven-piece band that played at college proms and social functions. Lewis described it to Mike Bourne in Down Beat as "a very hip R&B jazz type thing." He performed with the band for a couple of years, until it broke up because of America's military involvement in the Korean War. Daddy-O Daylie, a popular Chicago DJ, advised the players who had escaped the draft--bassist and cellist Eldee Young, drummer Red Holt, and Lewis--to stay together as the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Daddy-O Daylie gave another boost to the group's career when he introduced them to Leonard Chess of the Chess recording company. And although Chess recorded the trio's first album, it was shelved until Daylie intervened, promising to air it on his show. That radio exposure in 1956 contributed to the group's growing popularity.
Meanwhile, Lewis had been studying music, first at the Chicago Music College and later at De Paul University. In 1959 the trio was playing at the Cloister Inn in Chicago when an invitation came to perform at the legendary club Birdland in New York City. Lewis decided to leave school to take advantage of the opportunity. Although Birdland had only invited the trio for three weeks, the exposure led to performances at Randall's Island Jazz Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Village Vanguard. One gig led to another, and Lewis never returned to school.
Here’s the entire first side of that first album, with a satisfying bit of pop and crackle in the sound quality.
1. 0:00 Carmen 2. 4:30 I Remember April 3. 8:50 The Wind 4. 12:38 Bea Mir Bist Do Schon 5. 15:28 Funny Valentine
In my opinion, one of the best interviews with Lewis was for 2012’s seven-episode Music Makers series hosted by Scott Houston. Lewis covers growing up and learning to play piano and how he accidentally wound up playing jazz, which he was clueless about, before journeying to his first recording contract and the accidental encounter that resulted in his trio’s first hit, “The In Crowd.” He punctuates his stories with short and delightful bursts of piano-playing.
Please take a half-hour to listen to it when you can.
The Trio’s first hit was an instrumental cover of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd,” released at the end of 1964. First, here’s Gray performing it on ABC’s Shindig in 1965.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s instrumental version (with Red Holt on drums and Eldee Young on bass)—which Lewis described as “last-minute filler”—was also recorded in 1965, live at Washington, D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns.
It was an instant hit.
As noted in his interview with Sam Houston, due to internal conflicts in the group, the Trio faced personnel changes early on in their rapid rise. Lewis tells the story of meeting a quiet young percussionist named Maurice who joined his trio in 1967. Maurice would go on to create the superstar group Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Maurice White’s official website bio pays homage to his time in the Ramsey Lewis Trio:
After graduating high school, Maurice moved to the Windy City to continue his musical education at the prestigious Chicago Conservatory Of Music. He continued picking up drumming jobs on the side, which eventually lead to a steady spot as a studio percussionist with the legendary Chicago label, Chess Records. At Chess, Maurice had the privilege of playing with such greats as Etta James, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Willie Dixon, Sonny Stitt and Ramsey Lewis, whose trio he joined in 1967. He spent nearly three years as part of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. “Ramsey helped shape my musical vision beyond just the music,” Maurice explains. “I learned about performance and staging.” Maurice also learned about the African thumb piano, or kalimba, an instrument whose sound would become central to much of his work over the years.
Here’s a glimpse of Lewis performing in 1966 with the new lineup, which included White, at the previously mentioned Ravinia festival. The performance ended up part of a one-hour television show called The Sound of Ravinia, which showcased genres from jazz to opera, pop to folk.
In 1966 I can remember going to many a party and dancing to Lewis’ non-Trio hit, “Wade in the Water,” which had both jazz and gospel elements.
Though White would leave the Trio and head to the West Coast to launch an amazingly successful band of his own, their friendship launched another major hit for Lewis, which he described in a 2012 interview with Patrick Wall for Columbia, South Carolina’s Free Times.
PATRICK WALL: Before Sun Goddess, you’d worked mostly in acoustic trios and such, in a kind of leaner, more bebop-oriented sound. And The In-Crowd, which a lot of folks think is your finest work, is very straight-forward trio jazz. How did you develop that deep funk groove in the ’70s? Was a big part of it when Maurice White [who’d later start Earth Wind and Fire] joined your band?
RAMSEY LEWIS: Well, you know, The In-Crowd and that stuff, that’s the outgrowth of my playing at our church, playing gospel music for so many years. So a lot of people, when I did The In-Crowd, they said, oh, it’s funky, it’s bluesy, it’s this, it’s that. But actually it’s the influence of playing gospel music. And the trio changed, the original trio changed, and we needed a drummer. And Maurice White came to the group, and he played with the trio — it was Maurice White and Cleveland Eaton in the trio. And Maurice then said, Well I’m going to form my own group. And I said, “Oh, are you going to form a trio or quintet? Are you going to play bebop?” And he said, “No, man. We’re going to dance. We’re going to play rock ‘n’ roll.” And I said, “Oh, Maurice.” [chuckles] “Take a couple aspirin and get over it!” So he left and went to California. And a couple years later, he calls me and says, “I got this song, and you might want to record it. We’re in New York and we’re going to L.A., but we’re can stop in Chicago. I’ll bring two or three guys with me, and you’ve got a hit record.” So they came, and we did this song, and I said, “What are you going to name it?” And he said “It’s called ‘Hot Dawgit.’” And so he’s packing up and getting ready to go, and he says, “Oh I almost forgot. We have this other melody, just a melody, like a 16-bar melody, it’s really nice, but that’s all there is to it, so you’re going to have to do some soloing to fill out the song.” And we went on for seven or eight minutes, because we didn’t think it was going to be a single. But, you know, we had the single. And, I said, What are you going to call this second song? And he said, Well, just call it “Sun Goddess.” Well, the single came out. I think my mother and my sister bought a copy, and maybe a couple of my friends, and it kind of died on the branch. But the album was selling. People were coming in and asking for Sun Goddess. So, then Maurice, by now, Earth Wind and Fire is hotter than a firecracker, and he said, “You know, you want to tour with us? You could do your set, and then we could do Sun Goddess together.” And it was during that tour that I added some electric instruments so we could play these songs.
Give “Sun Goddess” a listen.
When word of Lewis’ Sept. 12 death spread, the obituaries and tributes flooded in from friends, fellow musicians, and major media. Let’s visit a few.
From his lifelong Chicago friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.:
From Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind, and Fire:
From friend and Latin jazz great Eddie Palmieri:
From Chicago’s current mayor:
Here’s “Happiness,” from 2021’s Maha de Carnava!, the last Trio album released before Lewis’ death.
Let’s close on a high note with a taste of Lewis’ gospel roots. It was always a happy day when Ramsey Lewis sat down to a piano and rewarded the world with music. This rendition of “Oh Happy Day” was recorded live in 2005 at the J.W. James Memorial A.M.E. Church in Maywood, Illinois. The Rev. Lucille L. Jackson—Lewis’ older sister, the one who knew she wasn’t the family piano prodigy—was co-pastor.
Thank you, Mr. Lewis. Rest in joy.
Join me in the comments for lots more Ramsey Lewis—and be sure to share your own favorites.