Ramsey Lewis, jazz pianist who became a pop star, dies at 87

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Ramsey Lewis, jazz pianist who became a pop star, dies at 87
The pianist Ramsey Lewis performs in Brooklyn on June 8, 2017. Lewis, a jazz pianist who unexpectedly became a pop star when his recording of “The ‘In’ Crowd” reached the Top 10 in 1965, and who remained musically active for more than a half century after that, died on Monday, Sept. 13, 2022, at his home in Chicago. He was 87. Earl Wilson via The New York Times.

by Peter Keepnews

NEW YORK, NY.- Ramsey Lewis, a jazz pianist who unexpectedly became a pop star when his recording of “The ‘In’ Crowd” reached the Top 10 in 1965 — and who remained musically active, and continued to defy categorization, for more than a half century after that — died on Monday at his home in Chicago. He was 87.

His death was announced on his website. No cause was given.

Lewis, who had been leading his own group since 1956, had recorded with the revered drummer Max Roach and was well known in jazz circles but little known elsewhere when he and his trio (Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums) recorded a live album at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington in May 1965. The album included a version of “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which had been a hit for the R&B singer Dobie Gray just a few months earlier, and which was released as a single.

Instrumental records were a rarity on the pop charts at the time, jazz records even more so. But its infectious groove, Lewis’ bluesy piano work and the ecstatic crowd reaction helped make the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s rendition of “The ‘In’ Crowd” a staple on radio stations and jukeboxes across the country. It reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 — eight points higher than the Dobie Gray original had reached.

Two more singles in a similar vein quickly followed: covers of “Hang On Sloopy,” which had been a No. 1 hit for the McCoys in 1965, and the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” “The ‘In’ Crowd” won Lewis the first of his three Grammy Awards. (The others were for the 1966 record “Hold It Right There” and a 1973 rerecording of “Hang On Sloopy.”)

Young and Holt left in 1966 to form their own group and had hit singles of their own. Lewis carried on with Cleveland Eaton on bass and Maurice White, later a founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, on drums. That trio had a Top 40 hit in 1966 with a version of the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

That record proved to be the end of Lewis’ career as a purveyor of Top 40 singles, but it was far from the end of his career as a jazz musician. His success on the pop and R&B charts — where he returned in 1974 with “Sun Goddess,” an album partly written and produced by White and featuring members of Earth, Wind & Fire — led some jazz purists to view him with skepticism. But that skepticism was long gone by 2007, when the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz musician.

Commenting on the perceived conflict between “jazz as entertainment and jazz as art” in a 2007 interview with DownBeat magazine, Lewis noted, “Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s playing was for dancers, but something happened where jazz entertainment came to be looked down upon by musicians.” He himself, he said in another interview, had “always had a broad outlook. If it was good music, I could dig it.”

In announcing his Jazz Master honor, the NEA pointed to Lewis’ eclecticism, praising him for a style “that springs from his early gospel experience, his classical training and a deep love of jazz.” It also acknowledged him as “an ambassador for jazz,” noting his work both in academia (he had taught jazz studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago) and in the media: In the 1990s he began hosting a syndicated weekly radio program, “Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis,” and in 2006 he hosted a public television series of the same name, which featured live performances by Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Tony Bennett and many others.

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born on May 27, 1935, in Chicago to Pauline and Ramsey Lewis. He began taking piano lessons when he was 4 — he recalled his teacher telling him, “Listen with your inner ear” and “Make the piano sing” — and was soon playing piano at the church where his father was choir director.

While still in high school, he joined a local seven-piece band, the Clefs. When four members of the band were drafted, Lewis, Holt and Young became the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

The trio signed with Argo Records, a subsidiary of the Chicago-based blues label Chess, and released their first album, “Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-Men of Swing,” in 1956. Other albums followed, as did engagements at Birdland and the Village Vanguard in New York City and the Newport Jazz Festival, but the group remained relatively unheralded beyond Chicago.

That changed with “The ‘In’ Crowd.”

Lewis is survived by his wife, Janet; his daughters, Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain; his sons, Kendall, Frayne and Bobby Lewis; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His sons Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn Lewis died before him.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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