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Lewis, Ramsey

Ramsey Lewis

1935—

Jazz musician, radio host

The divide between popular taste and elite critical opinion in jazz is amply illustrated by the career of pianist Ramsey Lewis. Lewis has consistently drawn large audiences and numerous record buyers over more than forty-five years of musical activity, but since the appearance of his hit 1965 album The In Crowd, he has been criticized by many jazz writers for what they have considered excessive commercialism. Scott Yanow on the allmusic Web site was perhaps typical when he refused to classify much of Lewis's music as jazz at all, contending that "Lewis has mostly stuck to easy listening pop music during the past 30 years." Yet Lewis, who became well known to Chicago radio audiences in the late 1990s as an on-air jazz-show host, set the tone for much of the successful jazz-pop fusion that followed his own 1960s breakthrough. Ignoring critical orthodoxy, he became an unusually influential musician. He has also been one of jazz's best public ambassadors, through his series of radio and television shows and recordings distributed under the "Legends of Jazz" umbrella.

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born in Chicago on May 27, 1935. He grew up in the Cabrini Homes housing project that also spawned soul vocalists Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler. When he was barely more than a toddler, his sister, Lucille, began taking piano lessons. Lewis raised a fuss until his parents gave in and agreed to pay 50 cents per week for lessons for him as well, with a local church organist who would hit his fingers with a ruler if he made a mistake. At age eleven Lewis switched to another teacher, Dorothy Mendelson, who, Lewis told Down Beat, told him, "‘You must make the piano sing.’ I found that fascinating. ‘Listen with the inner ear.’ Her lessons were a means to an end, about making music, not about technique." Inspired, Lewis began practicing until late in the evening, and his parents began to worry that he was neglecting his other studies.

Joined Seven-Piece Band

Lewis's first appearances as a pianist came at church, where his father served as choir director. When he was age sixteen he joined the Clefs, a locally popular seven-piece band that found work performing at parties and college dances. Several members of the group were drafted into the military during the Korean War during the 1950s, but Lewis and two other band members, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, were not called. Chicago radio DJ Daddy-O Daylie, mindful of the rising popularity of straight-ahead jazz, advised the three remaining Clefs to join together as the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Daylie arranged an audition for Lewis's trio with Phil Chess, one of two brothers who created the Chess label and put Chicago on the rhythm-and-blues recording map. Chess was impressed, and Lewis's debut album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Swing, was released some months later when Daylie promised to give the music air play. It was the beginning of a string of several dozen releases for Lewis on Chess and related labels, stretching into the early 1970s, when Lewis moved to the Columbia label.

Though jazz purists value his music of the late 1950s and early 1960s over his later work, Lewis was alert to pop trends even at this early stage. In 1962, at the height of the country/rhythm-and-blues crossover trend stimulated by Ray Charles and vocalist Solomon Burke, Lewis's trio released Country Meets the Blues. That same year they released a bossa nova album to capitalize on that growing craze.

Appeared at Birdland

Lewis had honed his piano skills with studies at the Chicago Music College and DePaul University, and the trio won mainstream jazz fans with a 1959 appearance at New York's prestigious Birdland club and subsequent gigs at the Village Vanguard and the Newport Jazz Festival. They seemed on their way to an artistically rewarding but financially dicey future in modern jazz when, in 1964, a coffee shop waitress enamored of the Dobie Gray pop hit "The In Crowd" suggested that they cover the song. Introducing their instrumental version to a hardcore jazz audience at Washington, DC's Bohemian Cavern, Lewis was nervous. But the audience was won over, and the resulting album, 1965's The In Crowd, brought the trio a platinum-selling album and a Grammy Award for best small-group recording.

The other titles on The In Crowd were indicative of the range of Lewis's musical interests; they include a movie-score number (the "Love Theme" from Spartacus), a bossa nova song (Antonio Carlos Jobim's Felicidade), a country-pop standard ("Tennessee Waltz"), a jazz classic (Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday"), and yet more styles. "This album is one of the places where Afro and funk-jazz started," noted Matthew Greenwald on allmusic, and in general even Lewis's critics have had to concede the rhythmic infectiousness of his playing. Lewis followed up his initial success with other covers that cracked pop charts—"A Hard Day's Night" and "Hang On Sloopy." In the 1970s the original Lewis trio broke up under the pressures of stardom, but Lewis forged ahead with a new group that included drummer Maurice White, who later founded the popular R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire.

At a Glance …

Born Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. on May 27, 1935, in Chicago, IL; son of Ramsey Emanuel and Pauline Richards Lewis; married Geraldine Taylor, 1954 (divorced 1989); married Janet Tamillow, 1990; children: seven. Education: Attended Chicago College of Music and DePaul University.

Career: Formed trio as pianist with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, 1956; group, as Ramsey Lewis Trio, recorded debut album, 1956; played Birdland and Newport Jazz Festival dates, 1959; released hit album The In Crowd, 1965; original trio dissolved; formed larger groups, late 1960s and 1970s; returned to small-group jazz, 1980s; radio host of Legends of Jazz series, station WNUA, Chicago, and later in syndication, 1990—; named artistic director of Ravinia Jazz in June series, suburban Chicago, 1993; cofounder and cochairman of LRSmedia, 2003—; founded Ramsey Lewis Foundation, 2005; host of Ramsey Lewis Morning Show radio series, 2006—; host of thirteen-show public television series Legends of Jazz, 2006.

Awards: Gold record award (sales of 500,000 copies) and Grammy Award for best small-group jazz recording, both 1965, for The In Crowd; gold record, 1975, for Sun Goddess; Recording Academy Governor's Award, 2000; NAACP Image Award for best jazz artist, 2003, for Simple Pleasures; Jazz Masters Award, National Endowment for the Arts, 2007.

Addresses: Home—Chicago, IL. Label—GRP Records Inc., 555 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

Now heading a septet, Lewis toured with Earth, Wind & Fire twice in the 1970s, and recorded Sun Goddess, one of his most successful albums, with a band that included members of that group. Lewis experimented with synthesizer keyboards and horn sections, but much of his work after the early 1980s was in the more intimate trio and quartet formats with which he was most familiar. Lewis also emerged on occasion as a formidable solo pianist. The Los Angeles Times, re- viewing a duet concert he played with pianist Billy Taylor, noted that "his solo during ‘Body and Soul’ was stunning, an imaginative impromptu that was a virtual definition of chamber jazz at its best."

Recorded with Classical Musicians

Lewis continued to branch out into new musical areas, recording with classical musicians on the 1988 release A Classic Encounter (with the Philharmonic Orchestra), and the following year employing contemporary dance rhythms on his Urban Renewal release under the tutelage of his producer son, Kevyn. A pair of albums with chanteuse Nancy Wilson, 1984's The Two of Us and 2002's Meant to Be, were particularly successful. A year rarely passed without the release of one or more Lewis albums, and most, despite the critics' disapproval, reached the top levels of jazz album sales charts.

Lewis remained philosophical about the split between critics and audiences. "This is a very sensitive area that we're entering into," he told Down Beat. "Jazz as entertainment and jazz as art…. Count Basie and Duke Ellington's playing was for dancers, but something happened where jazz entertainment came to be looked down upon by musicians … Well, that's OK, but the music became so complex you couldn't dance to it, and the guy who worked all day in an office, drove a truck, whatever, at the end of the week, he didn't feel that he could spend his 88 or his 810 going to school, so he stopped going [to jazz clubs]."

Indeed, as modernism loosened its stranglehold on jazz aesthetics, critics began to recognize Lewis's contributions and to treat his new releases more kindly. By the turn of the century, Lewis was a jazz leader and tastemaker in his own right, serving as artistic director of the jazz series at Ravinia, the summer concert venue of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and hosting a syndicated radio show based at Chicago's WNUA. His album Appassionata, released on the Narada label in late 1999, revealed that Lewis's taste for crossing musical boundaries remained undiminished. The album included arrangements of classical pieces by Fauré, Chopin, and others, an Art Tatum tribute, a gospel medley, and a piece by Lewis's youthful Chess Records compatriot Charles Stepney. The release appeared to signal that Lewis had come closer to the jazz ideal of creative freedom than his critics had initially understood.

In 2003 Lewis released another well-received album with vocalist Wilson, Simple Pleasures. That year, Lewis, along with partners Larry Rosen—founder and former president of GRP Records—and Lee Rosenberg formed LRSmedia, a production company devoted to making jazz products in a variety of media. The company's highest profile project was Legends of Jazz, a thirteen-part television series that aired in 2006, featuring profiles of many of the greatest jazz artists of all time. In 2005 Lewis formed the Ramsey Lewis Foundation, whose mission was to give disadvantaged youth the opportunity to play musical instruments, especially jazz. As he wrote in a May 10, 2008, column in Billboard, "We must find ways to reach into our local communities to expose youth to this music. If not, jazz will continue to be America's classic music, but not popular." In 2007 Lewis was officially designated a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and around that time he donated memorabilia from his illustrious career to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. If jazz fails to thrive into the next generation, it will not be due to a lack of effort from Ramsey Lewis.

Selected discography

Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Swing, Argo, 1956.

Lem Winchester and the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Argo, 1958.

An Hour with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Cadet, 1959.

Stretchin' Out, Cadet, 1960.

Never on Sunday, Cadet, 1961.

Country Meets the Blues, Argo, 1962.

Bach to the Blues, Cadet, 1964.

The In Crowd (live), Chess, 1965.

Wade in the Water (live), Jazz Time, 1966.

Goin' Latin, Cadet, 1967.

Up Pops Ramsey, Cadet, 1968.

Them Changes, Cadet, 1970.

Back to the Roots, Cadet, 1971.

Upendo Ni Pamoja, CBS, 1972.

Funky Serenity, Columbia, 1973.

Groover, Cadet, 1974.

Don't It Feel Good, Columbia, 1975.

Salongo, CBS, 1976.

Love Notes, CBS, 1977.

Ramsey, CBS, 1979.

Solar Wind, Columbia, 1980.

Live at the Savoy, Columbia, 1981.

Chance Encounter, Columbia, 1982.

Les Fleurs, CBS, 1983.

(With Nancy Wilson) The Two of Us, Columbia, 1984.

Keys to the City, Columbia, 1987.

A Classic Encounter, Columbia, 1988.

Urban Renewal, Columbia, 1989.

Fantasy, Columbia, 1991.

Ivory Pyramid, GRP, 1992.

Sky Islands, GRP, 1993.

Between the Keys, GRP, 1995.

Dance of the Soul, GRP, 1997.

In Person: 1960-1967 (live), GRP, 1998.

Appassionata, Narada, 1999.

(With Nancy Wilson) Meant to Be, Narada, 2002.

20th Century Masters—The Millennium, Chess, 2002.

Urban Knights V, Narada, 2003.

(With Nancy Wilson) Simple Pleasures, Narada, 2003.

Time Flies, Narada, 2004.

Urban Knights VI, Narada, 2005.

With One Voice (live), Narada, 2005.

Mother Nature's Son (original recording remastered), Verve, 2007.

Sources

Books

Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.

Periodicals

Billboard, February 12, 1994, p. 19; May 10, 2008, p. 6.

Chicago Sun-Times, June 7, 1998.

Chicago Tribune, February 4, 2007.

Down Beat, February 2000, p. 40; April 2002, p. 60.

Ebony, October 2005, p. 24.

Jet, April 21, 2008, p. 36.

Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1987; January 13, 1997, p. F10.

St. Petersburg Times (Clearwater Times edition), October 16, 1991, p. X15.

Online

"Biography" by Scott Janow and album review by Matthew Greenwald, allmusic, http://www.allmusic.com (accessed August 17, 2008).

"Ramsey Lewis," All about Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/ramseylewis (accessed August 17, 2008).

"Ramsey Lewis Biography," Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, http://www.legendsofjazz.net/ramseylewis/ (accessed August 17, 2008).

Ramsey Lewis Official Web Site, http://www.ramseylewis.com/ (accessed August 17, 2008).

—James M. Manheim and Bob Jacobson

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Lewis, Ramsey 1935–

Ramsey Lewis 1935

Jazz musician

Joined Seven-Piece Band

Appeared at Birdtand

Recorded with Classical Musicians

Selected discography

Sources

The divide between popular taste and elite critical opinion in jazz is amply illustrated by the career of pianist Ramsey Lewis. Lewis has consistently drawn large audiences and numerous record buyers over more than 45 years of musical activity, but since the appearance of his hit 1965 album, The In Crowd, he has been criticized by many jazz writers for what they have considered excessive commercialism. Scott Yanow of the All Music Guide was perhaps typical when he refused to classify much of Lewiss music as jazzat all, contending that Lewis has mostly stuck to easy listening pop music during the past 30 years. Yet Lewis, who became well known to Chicago radio audiences in the late 1990s as an on-air jazz show host, set the tone for many of the successful jazz-pop fusions that followed his own 1960s breakthroughs. Ignoring critical orthodoxy, he became an unusually influential musician.

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born in Chicago on May 27, 1935. He grew up in the Cabrini Homes housing project that also spawned soul vocalists Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler. When he was barely more than a toddler, his sister, Lucille, began taking piano lessons. Lewis raised a fuss until his parents gave in and agreed to pay 50 cents a week for lessons for him as wellwith a local church organist who would hit his fingers with a ruler if he made a mistake. At age 11, Lewis switched to another teacher, Dorothy Mendelson, who, Lewis told Down Beat, told him, You must make the piano sing. I found that fascinating. Listen with the inner ear. Her lessons were a means to an end, about making music, not about technique. Inspired, Lewis began practicing until late in the evening, and his parents began to worry that he was neglecting his other studies.

Joined Seven-Piece Band

Lewiss first appearances as a pianist came at church where his father served as choir director. When he was 16 he joined the Clefs, a locally popular seven-piece band that found work performing at parties and college dances. Several members of the group were drafted into the military during the Korean War, but Lewis and two other band members, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, were not called. Chicago radio DJ Daddy-0 Daylie, mindful of the rising popularity of straight-ahead jazz in the hands of musicians such as

At a Glance

Born Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. on May 27, 1935, in Chicago; married twice; four children. Education: Attended Chicago College of Music and DePaul University.

Career: Formed trio with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, 1956; group, as Ramsey Lewis Trio, recorded debut album, 1956; played Birdland and Newport Jazz Festival dates, 1959; released hit album The In Crowd, 1965; original trio dissolved; Lewis formed larger groups, late 1960s and 1970s; returned to small-group jazz, 1980s; named artistic director, Ravinia Jazz in June series, suburban Chicago, 1993; radio host, station WNUA (Chicago) and in syndication.

Selected awards: Gold record award (sales of 500, 000 copies) for The In Crowd, 1965; Grammy award, best small-group jazz recording, for The In Crowd, 1965; gold record for Sun Goddess, 1975.

Addresses: Home Chicago, IL. Label GRP Records, Inc., 555 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

Ray Charles, advised the three remaining Clefs to join together as the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

In 1957 Daylie arranged an audition for Lewiss trio with Phil Chess, one of two brothers who created the Chess label and put Chicago on the rhythm-and-blues recording map. Chess was impressed, and Lewiss debut album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Swing, was released some months later when Daylie promised to give the music air play. It was the beginning of a string of several dozen releases for Lewis on Chess and related labels, stretching into the early 1970s, when Lewis moved to the Columbia label.

Though jazz purists value his music of the late 1950s and early 1960s over his later work, Lewis was alert to pop trends even at this early stage. In 1962, at the height of the country/rhythm-and-blues crossover trend stimulated by Ray Charles and vocalist Solomon Burke, Lewiss trio released Country Meets the Blues. That same year they released a bossa nova album to capitalize on that growing craze.

Appeared at Birdtand

Lewis had honed his piano skills with studies at the Chicago Music College and DePaul University, and the trio won mainstream jazz fans with a 1959 appearance at New Yorks prestigious Birdland club and subsequent gigs at the Village Vanguard and the Newport Jazz Festival. They seemed on their way to an artistically rewarding but financially dicey future in modern jazz when, in 1964, a coffee shop waitress enamored of the Dobie Gray pop hit The In Crowd suggested that they cover the song. Introducing their instrumental version to a hardcore jazz audience at Washington, D.C.s Bohemian Cavern, Lewis was nervous. But the audience was won over, and the resulting album, 1965s The In Crowd, brought the trio a platinum-selling album and a Grammy award for best small-group recording.

The other titles on The In Crowd were indicative of the range of Lewiss musical interests; they include a movie-score number (the Love Theme from Spartacus), a bossa nova song (Antonio Carlos Jobims Felicidade), a country-pop standard (Tennessee Waltz), a jazz classic (Duke Ellingtons Come Sunday), and yet more styles. This album is one of the places where Afro and funk-jazz started, noted Matthew Greenwald of the All Music Guide, and in general even Lewiss critics have had to concede the rhythmic infectiousness of his playing. Lewis followed up his initial success with other covers that cracked pop chartsA Hard Days Night and Hang On Sloopy. In the 1970s the original Lewis trio broke up under the pressures of stardom, but Lewis forged ahead with a new group that included drummer Maurice White, who later founded the wildly popular R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire.

Now heading a septet, Lewis toured with Earth, Wind & Fire twice in the 1970s, and recorded Sun Goddess, one of his most successful albums, with a band that included members of that group. Lewis experimented with synthesizer keyboards and horn sections, but much of his work after the early 1980s was in the more intimate trio and quartet formats with which he was most familiar. Lewis also emerged on occasion as a formidable solo pianist. The Los Angeles Times, reviewing a duet concert he played with pianist Billy Taylor, noted that his solo during Body and Soul was stunning, an imaginative impromptu that was a virutal definition of chamber jazz at its best.

Recorded with Classical Musicians

Lewis continued to branch out into new musical areas, recording with classical musicians on the 1988 release, A Classic Encounter with the Philharmonic Orchestra, and the following year employing contemporary dance rhythms on his Urban Renewal release under the tutelage of his producer son Kevyn. A pair of albums with chanteuse Nancy Wilson, 1984s The Two of Us and 2002s Meant to Be, were particularly successful. A year rarely passed without the release of one or more Lewis albums, and most, despite the critics disapproval, reached the top levels of jazz album sales charts.

Lewis remains philosphical about the split between critics and audiences. This is a very sensitive area that were entering into, he told Down Beat. Jazz as entertainment and jazz as art. Count Basie and Duke Ellingtons playing was for dancers, but something happened where jazz entertainment came to be looked down upon by musicians Well, thats OK, but the music became so complex you couldnt dance to it, and the guy who worked all day in an office, drove a truck, whatever, at the end of the week, he didnt feel that he could spend his 88 or his 810 going to school, so he stopped going [to jazz clubs].

Indeed, as modernism loosened its stranglehold on jazz aesthetics, critics began to recognize Lewiss contributions and to treat his new releases more kindly. By the turn of the century, Lewis was a jazz leader and tastemaker in his own right, serving as artistic director of the jazz series at Ravinia, the summer concert venue of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and hosting a syndicated radio show based at Chicagos WNUA, light-jazz outlet. His 2000 album Appassionata, released on the Narada label, revealed that Lewiss taste for crossing musical boundaries remained undiminished. The album included arrangements of classical pieces by Fauré, Chopin, and others, an Art Tatum tribute, a gospel medley, and piece by Lewiss youthful Chess Records compatriot Charles Stepney. The release appeared to signal that Lewis had come closer to the jazz ideal of creative freedom than his critics had initially understood.

Selected discography

Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Swing, Argo, 1956.

Lem Winchester and the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Argo, 1958.

An Hour with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Cadet, 1959.

Stretchin Out, Cadet, 1960.

Never on Sunday, Cadet, 1961.

Country Meets the Blues, Argo, 1962.

Bach to the Blues, Cadet, 1964.

The In Crowd [live], Chess, 1965.

Wade in the Water [live], Jazz Time, 1966.

Goin Latin, Cadet, 1967.

Up Pops Ramsey, Cadet, 1968.

Them Changes, Cadet, 1970.

Back to the Roots, Cadet, 1971.

Upendo Ni Pamoja, CBS, 1972.

Funky Serenity, Columbia, 1973.

Groover, Cadet, 1974.

Dont It Feel Good, Columbia, 1975.

Salongo, CBS, 1976.

Love Notes, CBS, 1977.

Ramsey, CBS, 1979.

Solar Wind, Columbia, 1980.

Live at the Savoy, Columbia, 1981.

Chance Encounter, Columbia, 1982.

Les Fleurs, CBS, 1983.

The Two of Us, Columbia, 1984 (with Nancy Wilson).

Keys to the City, Columbia, 1987.

A Classic Encounter, Columbia, 1988.

Urban Renewal, Columbia, 1989.

Fantasy, Columbia, 1991.

Ivory Pyramid, GRP, 1992.

Sky Islands, GRP, 1993.

Between the Keys, GRP, 1995.

Dance of the Soul, GRP, 1997.

In Person: 1960-1967 [live], GRP, 1998.

Appassionata, Narada, 1999.

Meant To Be, Narada, 2002 (with Nancy Wilson).

20th Century MastersThe Millennium, Chess, 2002.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Musicians, Volume 14, Gale, 1995. Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.

Periodicals

Billboard, February 12, 1994, p. 19.

Chicago Sun-Times, June 7, 1998, p. Show-11.

Down Beat, February 2000, p. 40; April 2002, p. 60.

Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1987, p. Calendar-6; January 13, 1997, p. F10.

St. Petersburg Times, October 16, 1991, Clearwater Times ed., p. X15.

On-line

All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com

Lycos Music, http://music.lycos.com

James M. Manheim

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"Lewis, Ramsey 1935–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Lewis, Ramsey 1935–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved September 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lewis-ramsey-1935

Lewis, Ramsey

Ramsey Lewis

Pianist, composer

Increased Exposure and a Hit Record

Trio Disbanded

Critical Scorn and Audience Approval

Signed With GRP

Selected discography

Sources

Ramsey Lewiss recording historymore than 60 albums in his four-decade careerattests to his enduring popularity. Although considered a jazz artist, Lewis is known for mixing a variety of genres, including blues, soul, pop, and classical into his repertoire. But the album that propelled him from a popular nightclub performer to a phenomenal success, The In Crowd, also marked the end of his critical acclaim. Since its release in 1965, Lewis has frequently been accused of commercializing his music and not playing to his potential as a jazz artist. Lewis, however, points out that his albums have always included non-jazz pieces, and his fans have ignored the criticism for decades.

Lewis began playing the piano at the age of four and was receiving lessons by age six. In his early teens, he served as pianist at the church where his father was the choir director. His 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 Americas military involvement in the Korean War. Daddy-0 Day-lie, a popular Chicago DJ, advised the players who had escaped the draftbassist and cellist Eldee Young, drummer Red Holt, and Lewisto stay together as the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Daddy-0 Daylie gave another boost to the groups career when he introduced them to Leonard Chess of the Chess recording company. And although Chess recorded the trios first album, it was shelved until Daylie intervened, promising to air it on his show. That radio exposure in 1956 contributed to the groups growing popularity.

Increased Exposure and a Hit Record

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 Randalls Island Jazz Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Village Vanguard. One gig led to another, and Lewis never returned to school.

The trio performed steadily in nightclubs, achieving moderate recognition in Chicago and elsewhere. In 1965 their album The In Crowd catapulted the Ramsey

For the Record

Born May 27, 1935, in Chicago, IL; married twice; children: four, including sons Robert and Frayne. Education: Attended Chicago Music College and De Paul University.

Formed trio with bassist-cellist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt, 1956; group recorded first album, 1956; also recorded with Max Roach, Clark Terry, and Sonny Stitt, late 1950s; trio played at Birdland and Island Jazz Festival, New York, 1959; released The In Crowd, 1965; trio dissolved and Lewis formed another with bassist Cleveland Eaton and drummer Maurice White; also formed quintet, including Henry Johnson (guitar), Chuck Webb (bass), Michael Logan (keyboards), and Steve Cobb (drums), 1990s; hosted nationally syndicated weekly radio show and weekly cable show; served as artistic director for Ravinias Jazz in June series, beginning in 1993.

Selected awards: Gold album for The In Crowd, 1965; Grammy Award for best small-group jazz recording, 1965, for The In Crowd; gold album for Sun Goddess, 1975; Grammy awards for Hold It Right There and Hang on Sloopy.

Addresses: Home Chicago, IL. Record company GRP Records, Inc., 555 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.

Lewis Trio to national prominence. The title track, one of the first fusion hits, won a Grammy that year for best small-group jazz recording. Soon after, the trio recorded hit versions of the popular rock songs Hang on Sloopy, A Hard Days Night, and Wade in the Water. One of the few instances of a jazz instrumental being played on Top 40 radio stations, Lewiss version of Hang on Sloopy eclipsed the original by the McCoys.

Trio Disbanded

But fame did not sit well with the 15-year-old group. According to Lewis, things had grown stale. We werent relating to each other musically, he told Bourne in a Down Beat interview. He admitted that the other band-members resented the attention he received as the groups namesake. The group broke up in the mid-1960s, and Lewis formed a new trio with bassist Cleveland Eaton and drummer Maurice White, who later joined the rhythm and blues group Earth, Wind and Fire.

By 1970 Lewis had more than 30 albums to his name. His popularity had remained strong, despite substantial criticism from the jazz press since his success with The In Crowd. Accused of selling out and diluting his jazz with pop formulas, Lewis maintained that he had always played a mix of jazz, R&B, rock, and classics. Ive always had a broad outlook, he explained to Bourne in 1973. If it was good music, I could dig it. With the new trio, Lewis made several albums with orchestral backing, and drummer White added kalimba, an African thumb piano, to some pieces. Lewis told Down Beat that the group didnt want to be fenced in by old jazz patterns, or any patterns, for that matter. Fans ignored the critical disrespect and continued listening; several Lewis albums from this period went gold, including Sun Goddess in 1975.

Lewis abandoned the trio format in the 1970s in favor of a seven-piece group. The septet, following the success of Sun Goddess, toured twice with Earth, Wind and Fire. However, Lewis reported feeling more like a bandleader than a pianist, and in the early 1980s he returned to playing with a trio. He varied his surroundings several times in the late 1980s and early 1990s, playing in quartets, quintets, piano duets, and as a soloist.

Critical Scorn and Audience Approval

Although the fervor Lewis had inspired in the late 1960s and the early 1970s waned in the 1980s, he continued to draw a substantial following. But critics, for the most part, remained unimpressed. In 1982 Brian Harrigan, reviewing Live at the Savoy for Melody Maker, admitted Lewis still had brilliant technique, but protested that his playing was totally submerged by the presence of horn sections, additional keyboards, backing singers andalthough I didnt actually hear itprobably someone tapping on the side of a kitchen sink. [This work has] all the backbone of a musical jellyfish. Richard Palmer reviewed the 1984 album Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson for Jazz Journal International in a similar vein: I must say that the vulgar commercial intent and packaging of this album is not something I warm to greatly. If Im wrong, and this was an honest and sincere projectwell, I feel a bit sorry for them both. Listeners disagreed, however, expressing their approval by continuing to attend performances and buy albums.

Lewis moved into new arenas in the 1980s and early 1990s. He started hosting a jazz radio show on WNUA Chicago, which had been syndicated in 15 markets by 1994. He also began hosting a weekly Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable program called Sound & Style, which was nominated for an ACE award. In addition, BET chose Lewis as the official spokesperson for the new cable channel BET on Jazz, which was set to launch in the autumn of 1994. And in 1993, Lewis became the artistic director for Ravinias Jazz in June concert series in Chicago.

Signed With GRP

Lewis also continued to tour and record. He ended his 20-year relationship with Columbia Records in the early 1990s and signed on with GRP, a label he feels is more enthusiastic in its promotion of jazz musicians. Sky Island, released by GRP in 1993, received the usual complaints from critics, including Larry Birnbaum, who wrote in Down Beat: [Lewiss] acoustic piano breezes blandly through a set of diluted pop tunes and insipid originals, lightly scattering bluesy signature riffs upon the tepid waters.

However, Sky Island was popular with jazz listeners; it hit the Top Five on the contemporary jazz albums chart and sold 37,000 units within three months of its release. Sons Frayne and Robert had helped Lewis produce the album, along with Carl Griffin and Maurice White. With plans to collaborate with fusion saxophonist Grover Washington on a mid-1990s release, Lewis held true to his claim in Down Beat in 1991 that he would be concertizing and recording until they are throwing dirt in my face six feet under.

Selected discography

Something You Got, Chess, 1964.

Live at the Bohemian Caverns, Chess, 1964.

The In Crowd, Chess, 1965.

Sound of Christmas, Chess, 1966.

Another Voyage, Cadet, 1969.

Sun Goddess, Columbia, 1975.

Live at the Savoy, Columbia, 1982.

Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson, Columbia, 1984.

Ivory Pyramid, GRP, 1992.

Sky Island, GRP, 1993.

Tequila Mockingbird, Columbia.

Keys to the City, Columbia.

A Classic Encounter, Columbia.

Sources

Billboard, February 12, 1994.

Down Beat, May 14, 1970; October 25, 1973; March 1991; July 1993; November 1993.

Jazz Journal International, December 1984.

Melody Maker, March 13, 1982.

Additional information for this profile was provided by GRP Records.

Susan Windisch Brown

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