We tend to put music in categories, rock, jazz, pop, soul, etc., and all too often the audience for one genre does not cross over to another. It seems to me that this is a change from the ’60s when all kinds of music were melding together and everyone was into everything, or at least willing to listen. Miles Davis played on the same bill as the Grateful Dead. Harry Chapin opened for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was all there for the taking.
That’s not to say that once in awhile an artist didn’t manage to cross over in a big way. Lots of soul records were big hits on the pop charts. A harder feat was to put a jazz record on the charts though. There were only a handful of records by jazz artists that managed to appeal to a mass audience. One of the biggest of these records was by the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Lewis was born in Chicago. He started playing piano at age four and was in his first band by the time he was 15. The Cleffs were a seven-piece band, and eventually Lewis siphoned off bass player Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt to form the Ramsey Lewis Trio. They released their first album in 1956 and played jazz up to 1965 when they scored a big pop chart hit with “The ‘In’ Crowd,” an instrumental cover of a song that had been a hit for singer Dobie Gray the previous year.
Lewis’ version of the song, which was written by Billy Page, was recorded live at Bohemian Caverns in D.C. in May, 1965. The Argo Records release shot to #5 on the pop chart, and #2 on the R&B chart. The album that included the song was also a big seller, getting to the top of the R&B chart, and #2 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. In 1966 the album was awarded a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, and the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009.
In 1966 Lewis lost the two other members of the trio when they left to form Young-Holt Unlimited. They were replaced by Cleveland Eaton and Maurice White. Four years later White left to form Earth, Wind & Fire and he was replaced by Morris Jennings.
The pop hits didn’t stop for the jazz pianist though. In 1966 he scored with his takes on “Hang on Sloopy,” and “Wade in the Water.” Like “The ‘In’ Crowd” the two singles each sold a million copies and won gold records. With a big non-jazz audience in hand, Lewis switched to electric piano in the ’70s before returning to his acoustic origins.
In 1990, Lewis added the title of radio personality to his extensive resume. He hosted a syndicated program called Legends of Jazz, and the Ramsey Lewis Morning Show on Chicago’s WNUA. In 2006 Lewis hosted a 13 episode Legends of Jazz television series that was broadcast nationally. These days he is the artistic director at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, and he serves on the boards of the Merit School of Music and the Chicago High School for the Arts.
All told, Ramsey Lewis has recorded over 80 albums. He has been awarded seven gold albums, and has won three Grammys. Instead of selling out his jazz heritage, I prefer to think of Ramsey Lewis as an artist who made music so appealing that he brought the art form to a whole new audience.