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. Addresses: Home--Chicago, IL. Record company--GRP Records, Inc., 555 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.
Ramsey Lewis's recording history--more than 60 albums in his four-decade career--attests 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 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.
The trio performed steadily in nightclubs, achieving moderate recognition in Chicago and elsewhere. In 1965 their album The In Crowd catapulted the Ramsey 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 Day's Night," and "Wade in the Water." One of the few instances of a jazz instrumental being played on Top 40 radio stations, Lewis's version of "Hang on Sloopy" eclipsed the original by the McCoys.
But fame did not sit well with the 15-year-old group. According to Lewis, things had grown stale. "We weren't relating to each other musically," he told Bourne in a Down Beat interview. He admitted that the other bandmembers resented the attention he received as the group's 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. "I've 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 didn't "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.
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 and--although I didn't actually hear it--probably 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 I'm wrong, and this was an honest and sincere project--well, 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 Ravinia's Jazz in June concert series in Chicago.
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: "[Lewis's] 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."
by Susan Windisch Brown
Ramsey Lewis's Career
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 Ravinia's Jazz in June series, beginning in 1993.
Ramsey Lewis's 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."
- Selective Works
- 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.
July 22, 2003: Lewis's album with Nancy Wilson, Simple Pleasures, is released. Source: Yahoo! Shopping, shopping.yahoo.com/shop?d=product&id=1927022787&a=m&clink=, July 22, 2003.
- 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.