Around Chicago, Ramsey Lewis is lovingly known as “the guy who stayed.”
Many jazz stalwarts native to the Windy City left home and lived elsewhere at various times. Some moved across the country—such as Eddie Harris, to Los Angeles—and others across the pond, as the “Little Giant” Johnny Griffin did in relocating to France, then the Netherlands, and back to France, where he passed away in 2008.
Lewis, however, is the one who was Chicago born and raised but never left. “He always stayed in Chicago,” says Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich. “As far as I’m concerned, that wins him a few points.”
What’s also remarkable about Lewis is how, at seventy-six years old, he barely looks a day over fifty. Having come of age in the heroin generation, he never succumbed to the drug peril that afflicted many of his peers. So he is, in many ways, a survivor. “He sort of epitomizes clean living, and look at the results of that,” Reich says. “Look how magnificent he looks. We should all look so good.”
Disc jockey Barry Winograd is a forty-year veteran of Chicago jazz radio and was a student at Evanston Township High School when he heard Ramsey Lewis play for the first time. It was the early 1970s, and as Winograd walked by an auditorium where Lewis was performing on acoustic piano, he thought to himself, “Man, that guy’s got the lightest touch in the world.”
What Winograd heard was not just “touch” or style, but identity—the core of any accomplished jazz musician.
No matter the inspiration or what type of music an artist plays, jazz is about a voice—the ability to express oneself as an individual talent. It’s something that Lewis has in spades, and what has made him a professional success for sixty years.
“In jazz, in particular, musicians—if they’re good—they keep on growing,” Winograd says. “Whereas if you go hear the [Rolling] Stones, I expect to hear ‘Satisfaction’ the same way it was recorded.”
Growth was never an issue for Lewis, who evolved from classical training and straightahead jazz to commercial endeavors and electric experimentation to smooth-jazz stylings—the type which many listeners detest. But even in his most watered-down, Muzak moments, he remained funky.
“I think Ramsey did a better job with [smooth jazz] than most people,” says Chicago-based jazz critic and historian Neil Tesser, author of The Playboy Guide to Jazz. “He brought something Black to it that a lot of people didn’t, so that made it more interesting. You’re not going to confuse Ramsey with Kenny G. One guy’s got soul, and the other one doesn’t.”
Yes, my goodness—soul. Soul that precedes the popularity of hits like “The ‘In’ Crowd” and “Hang On Sloopy” that Lewis scored in his original trio with drummer Isaac Redd Holt and bassist Eldee Young. Lewis has woven many Chicago threads—gospel, blues, jazz—into his playing and, at seventy-six, has reached a point of reflection on his past. His new compositions have a deeper, often contemplative, feel to them, yet he’s swinging nearly as hard as he did at the height of his 1960s popularity on Chess Records.
The difference is in the craftsmanship, and the lifetime of musical knowledge injected into his current work. Lewis has not just survived but, over the last decade, has grown and advanced, according to the Tribune’s Reich: “He’s been kind of rejuvenated. And for those of us who [have] admired and appreciated Ramsey Lewis all these years, this has just been a treat—a bonus—and something more. At an age when some musicians and artists in general are recycling what they already know and what we already love about them, Ramsey is trying something new and daring, and risking falling on his face. That’s what I find most significant about Ramsey Lewis today.”
When Wax Poetics spoke to Lewis for this story, much of the discussion was on his early years—classical piano lessons, the 1950s Chicago jazz circuit, and the emergence of his famed trio. Work with singer, songwriter, producer, and famed drummer Maurice White and the influence of Chess producer Charles Stepney followed, with Lewis saying of Stepney, “His talent was huge. If he had lived, he no doubt would have taken his place alongside Quincy Jones [and] the big-time arranger-producers.” These were the circumstances in which Ramsey Lewis became a star.
This current act is significant, Reich explains, because it seems to be less aimed at commerce and acquiring gold records—often difficult to do in the genre in which Lewis works—and more with discovering a voice within himself. Lewis has indicated in recent interviews that he’s comfortable exploring his musicality in this idiom now, so in that sense, the decades of evolution may have slowed. “He’s not going to do a rap album,” Tesser says. Nor would anyone want him to.
Yet there is something more to the modern-day Lewis—something that reflects a long, full life and a prolific career. As he continues to build upon his reputation, Lewis adds to an enduring legacy that jazz listeners—both in his native Chicago and throughout the world—find the most appealing. We are thankful to have him creating and flourishing, and hopeful that he continues to do so for years to come.
“I have a lot of respect for the man,” Winograd says. “I think he’s done a great deal for our community.
“He’s a survivor. God bless him.”
The Inner Ear
Ramsey Lewis: I was born on the South Side of Chicago, but I must have been two or three years old when I moved to the Near North Side. [I] went to grammar school and high school on the Near North Side. My older sister was getting the opportunity to take lessons. The family could only afford one child—there are three of us—and I got jealous. I had a few temper tantrums until they said, “Okay, okay, you can go!” I kind of thought that’s what I wanted until the piano teacher said, “No, you also have to practice every day.” Well, I didn’t like that part of it. Neither did I like the part where, if you’re not prepared for your lesson, the piano teacher had a ruler. She was our church organist and neighborhood community piano teacher, and she didn’t take any stuff. I mean, you had to practice. If you didn’t, she’d sit there and crack your knuckles. That really threw me against it. But my father said, “No, this is something you wanted to do, and we told you, ‘Not this time, maybe later.’ And you said, ‘No, I want to do it now,’ so you gotta stick with it.” And so I did. Thank God.
The turning point came when she had taught me just about all she thought she could, but she felt that I should continue. She wanted to take me downtown to Chicago Musical College, and there was a piano teacher there named Dorothy Mendelssohn. Her approach to teaching is what got me hooked. Rather than concentrating on technique, which I was doing up until then, her feeling was that technique was a means to an end. And the end was to make great music. So while she still had me concentrate on scales and arpeggios and exercises, she started saying things to me like, “Make the piano sing,” and “Listen with your inner ear.”
She stood about four feet nine, maybe four feet ten, but she would sit at the piano and play some Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky or something that was really big. I mean, she could get that piano to roar—but never banging. I mean, I paid attention to the fact that she could get the piano to build and not bang. For her to be that small and get the piano to rock like it was rocking, I was very impressed. And on the other hand, she would play a passage that was so beautiful—a beautiful, slow passage—and I just got hooked. I figured I really liked this, and I decided that music is something I wanted to be a part of. And I mean music, not necessarily the music business. I didn’t know anything about record deals or tours. I was twelve or thirteen years old; I just wanted to play the piano.
So it went from my folks saying, “You gotta get in there and practice. You didn’t practice today,” to them saying, “You been at the piano for hours. Don’t you have homework to do? You gotta go to bed. You got school in the morning!”
At nine years old, I started playing for our church—our gospel choir and the church service. And it was one Sunday morning when I was fifteen years old that one of the church musicians, his name was Wallace Burton—I was in high school; he was in college—he came over and asked would I like to play with their band. And I thought that could be fun. The following Friday, they had a dance to play. In these days, people still danced to jazz. So he said, “Show up at Southwestern Temple.”
I got there a little early, so I did some homework until the band showed up. We went up onstage and Wallace said, “All right, let’s take a Charlie Parker tune.” I forget the name of it, but it was based on B-flat blues. Everybody knew the blues in jazz. The only blues I’d ever been exposed to, my dad brought home a record called “Boogie and the Blues” by Meade “Lux” Lewis, and it was boogie-woogie. And I thought that was the blues. So he said, “Ramsey, you start it,” and I started playing doodle-doodle-doodle-doodle-doodle-doo. I started playing boogie-woogie. “No, no, no,” he said. “Sit this one out.” After that, he said, “Let’s play a ballad, let’s play somethin’ easy. What about ‘I’m in the Mood for Love,’ or ‘These Foolish Things Remind Me of You’?” I said, “I don’t know even one of those,” and so he said, “Go sit on the side and do your homework, and we’ll figure this out.”
I think it was a three-hour [dance], from 8:00 to 11:00 PM, and when it was over, I figured he was gonna take me home and say good-bye. But on the way home, he said, “Can you come over to the house tomorrow afternoon?” Which I did. And he wrote out blues chord changes, and he wrote out what they call rhythm chord changes, and then he named three, four, five, six standards—show tunes—that I should learn, and he gave me some music for that. In those days, you could go in record shops and take the records into listening booths, so he said, “Go and listen to the way other piano players play these standards, just so you can kinda get a feel for how they go, and then you figure it out.” And that’s how I got started in jazz.
I played with this seven-piece band—it was called the Cleffs—until the Korean War broke it up. The bass player and I—Eldee Young and myself—we were too young to go to the war, but everybody else got drafted. And we hired another drummer, because Redd Holt had to go to the Army too, and we just played around Chicago as a trio until Redd got out of the Army a year later. And that’s the trio that made an album in my early twenties. And as they say, the rest is history.
It was a big jazz scene in Chicago, starting back in the early 1900s through the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The ’50s are when we started doing it. You know Chicago’s a big city, so on the West Side, there must have been at least ten or eleven places to play. On the South Side, there must have been fifteen places to play, some of them big and nice, some of them not so big and nice. But local musicians had places they could go and perform. On the South Side, there were three or four really big-name clubs, where Joe Williams was playing in one of them, Ahmad Jamal was playing in another one, and another one—I remember Cannonball Adderley and his group came through town; they played that one. So there was always something. And it was six nights a week. Some places were seven nights a week, all night. During the week, it was like 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM, and on Saturday night, you played from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM.
It was great, because one thing we don’t have today is a place for all these young kids that are in high school. And they eventually go to college, and a lot of kids are graduating with degrees in jazz performance and jazz history and jazz this, that, and the other. But those with jazz performance, they don’t have the places [that] we had to practice their art. And that’s important. The old joke is: “How to do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” But we didn’t just mean practice in your living room, or your bedroom, or wherever you practice. We meant you gotta get out and practice performing, and practice learning how to perform—how to project your music and how to play in front of people, hold people’s attention, and this, that, and the other. That’s one of the things on my agenda as I move through life and talk to people and entities and performing arts centers. We must provide a place in many cities across the country for young people coming out of college—and while they’re in college too—to learn to play in front of an audience.
Hardly a week went by [where] we weren’t working, and we were good enough where a lot of places would ask us to stay for months. So we were playing a place called the Cloister Inn, in the Maryland Hotel, and Joe Glaser came by—not to see us, but to see the headliner. We were like the house band. I forget who the headliner was…Lenny Bruce, maybe, that’s who it was. But anyway, we were playing in the intermission, and he heard us, and he says, “I been hearing about you guys. You wanna play New York?” I mean, he was just straight—Joe Glaser was that kinda guy. He had Louis Armstrong. He had all the big entertainers [through his company] Associated Booking Corporation. And we said, “Are you kidding? We’d love to play New York!” So he said, “Do you wanna play Birdland?” And at that time, Birdland was the place to play. “Yeah, we’d love to play Birdland!” “Well, I can get you three weeks at Birdland.” So, sure enough, he got us three weeks at Birdland [in 1959], and we went out.
I don’t know how we managed to buy a Plymouth station wagon, ’cause we couldn’t afford to fly, and I still don’t know how the three of us—plus a big bass fiddle, plus a whole set of drums, and each of us had about two or three pieces of luggage—we got stuff in the station wagon and then on top with a tarp. We set out for New York, and we got there, and we played Birdland. I’ll never forget it. The headliners were Buddy Rich and his big band, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. At that time, [Blakey] had Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons…it was a hot band. Aaaand, the Ramsey Lewis Trio. We were sandwiched in between this. Wow, what an experience!
But we must have done pretty good, because during the second week, we were asked, “Would you like to play the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival?” And then there was a restaurant up in Harlem called the Prelude. “You wanna play there?” Instead of three weeks, we stayed in New York almost three months. And that is what turned me around, and [I] said, “You know, this could be something enjoyable.” But even then, it was about doing the best you can, playing to the best of your ability, and practicing and learning. Even then, we didn’t get into, “We need a hit record,” or “Our name needs to be bigger in lights.” It was all about the music, as it continues with me to this day. It’s all about the music.
“The ‘In’ Crowd”
We were planning our seventeenth album. We were gonna record it live in Washington, D.C., at the Bohemian Caverns. We got to town, and we had all the songs except one. We had begun in the last few albums, starting around the thirteenth, fourteenth album, of putting on our albums what we call a “fun” song, something that’s not too serious, but easygoing, with maybe a nice beat. We thought—unlike what’s been happening today—that an album should be an experience. It shouldn’t just be a collection of a bunch of songs. I mean, there should be a ballad, there should be medium tempo, there should be a standard, there should be something by the great master composers of jazz, and there should be sort of a fun song. But we didn’t have that one.
We were talking about it [in a coffee shop], and the waitress says, “What are you guys doing?” I said, “Trying to figure out a tune to play that’s kinda easygoing, maybe even recognizable.” And she said, “Have you heard Dobie Gray’s ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’?” I had not. But Eldee and Redd had heard it, and they said, “Yeah, that’s a great tune!” I said, “I’ll have to check it out one day.” Well, it was on the jukebox. Those were the days when they had jukeboxes in coffee shops. And she played it. I said, “Yeah, that’s simple, that’s easy, we can work that out.” So we did it.
We ended our set [at the Bohemian Caverns] with “The ‘In’ Crowd.” We were totally surprised when people started clapping their hands, and some people [were] dancing in the aisles. We looked at each other like, “What the heck is this?” I think we played three sets a night, and we closed each set with it. And we were recording it. Esmond Edwards, who was the producer, took the tapes back to Chicago—I think that was [May 1965]—and [Argo] released the album in June.
So [the label] called in August—we were then playing at the Minor Key in Detroit—and said, “You guys got a hit record.” Well, in those days, jazz musicians had good sellers, but there weren’t a lot of “hit” records. In fact, there’s been few really, say, hit records in jazz even to this day. So we said, “A hit record? What do you mean a hit record?” [Edwards] said, “Well, people are comin’ into the store, asking for ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’ like it’s a pop record. We’re gonna put it out as a single.” And that was unheard of.
By October of 1965, we were on the pop charts. I mean, it was fantastic. I think by the end of the year, The In Crowd album was among the top five pop albums on the pop charts. I remember we were keeping company with Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and the Beatles, which was very wild, because we went from making very little money a week. I think the trio was making $1,000 a week. ’Course, in the ’50s and ’60s, $1,000 went much further than it goes now, but what brought that to mind is when the booking agent said, “I think I can get you guys $5,000 a week.” And then, “I think I can get you guys $10,000 a week.” I mean, they kept goin’ up, goin’ up! We were just in heaven.
Charles Stepney and Maurice White
The Chess Brothers had [the] Chess, Checker, Argo, and Cadet labels. In those days, most labels had house bands. Charles Stepney was the house arranger and house producer. Maurice White was the house drummer. I met Maurice White first, because the original trio began to come apart at the end of 1965. As we began to make more money and get more fame, we began to have personal issues. I mean, we were like three old ladies picking at each other. It was just terrible. By early ’66, seven months into a hit record, we broke up! And so I needed a drummer.
Maurice White, I had always seen him, because anytime you go down to Chess, Maurice was there. That was his gig. So I asked him to be in the band, and he said, “I’d love to do it.” While he was in the band, that’s when Charles Stepney got involved and produced two or three of my albums, one of which stands out in my mind—Mother Nature’s Son [from 1968]. To this day, people talk about that album, and he produced a couple other ones too.
After three, four years, [Maurice] said, “You know, Ramsey, I’m gonna be leaving in the next two, three months, because we’re gonna move to California, and I’m forming a new group.” I thought it was a jazz quintet or quartet or whatever, and he says, “No, no, no, we’re gonna play jazz, and we’re gonna play R&B, rock, pop, and we’re gonna dance, and we’re gonna have magic…”
“Maurice, Maurice,” I said. “Take a couple aspirin and take a nap. I don’t know if you know what you’re talkin’ about. Go get some rest, man.” Well, the rest is history once again. He had this vision of this group that could do wonderful things and be entertaining and very showmanship-wise, but still produce great music and hit records. And I’ll be darned if he didn’t do it.
The Fender Rhodes
My first involvement with an electric instrument was Eldee Young in the early ’60s. He said, “Ramsey, you oughta play the Wurlitzer electric piano,” because he had heard Ray Charles play it, and it kinda had a funky sound when Ray Charles played it. So I think on a couple songs, I [tried it]. And I wasn’t that crazy about it. So I stopped using the Wurlitzer. And it was Charles Stepney that started saying, “You know, you should experiment with these things [synthesizers]. It brings another color to the music, it brings another sound to the music, and it could be interesting.” And I was reluctant, but Charles being Charles…I trusted him.
On Mother Nature’s Son, the Minimoog, ARP synthesizer, Fender Rhodes…I mean, all the electrical stuff is there, besides the acoustic piano. And that really made that album what it was at that time. Charles was adventurous. He was all about sounds, and music, and harmonies—how to use various instruments, [and] not as an end in themselves. It was, “How can the synthesizers be a part of the acoustic instruments, and give you another sound?” He was always experimenting that way.
The Fender Rhodes, of all the electrical keyboards, that’s probably the one that I played longest and kept in my repertoire. It is possible to develop your own musical personality and sound on the Fender Rhodes. However, it’s still electrical. You want more treble, you turn up the treble. You want a little more bass, you want some reverb, you want this-that-and-the-other…I’m a hands-on guy. I like the manual approach to the keyboard. You can only do that with the acoustic piano. I feel like I can express myself much more, in a deeper way, in a more sensitive way, on the acoustic piano, rather than on the electric piano. That’s not to say that you can’t make great music with the electric instruments, because to me, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock have done a lot, musically, with those instruments. It just wasn’t my forte.
The trio was in the studio here in Chicago, recording an album for Columbia Records. Teo Macero was the producer. We had a concert we had to play in Washington, so right in the middle of recording the album, we had to stop for two, three days to go and play this date. While I was in Washington, I get a call from Maurice. Now, Earth, Wind & Fire has become pretty big. Not as big as they were gonna become, but they were pretty big when he called me. They were already playing stadiums. And he said, “So you’re doin’ an album. Well, I have a couple tunes if you wanna check ’em out.”
First of all, I know Maurice knew me and my music. And secondly, by now, he had had three or four really big hit records, so for Maurice to say, “I got a couple tunes”… In fact, he said, “One tune that I have for you is gonna be bigger than ‘The “In” Crowd.’ You think ‘The “In” Crowd’ sold records? I got a song for you that’s gonna blow everybody away.” I said, “Really?” He says, “Yeah. If you want, on the way back to L.A., we’ll stop in Chicago, I’ll bring a couple of the guys with me, and I’ll show it to you. If you want, I can produce it for you.”
We worked on this tune for three days. He wanted it just so, ’cause he said this is gonna be the biggest thing. So we finished the record, and the name of that record was… [forgets the name of the song, starts humming it to himself to jog his memory] Oh, “Hot Dawgit.” And he said, “There you go!”
Then he said, “Oh, by the way, there’s this other little thing. I don’t even know if you want to do it, but it’s a nice melody. It’s only a twelve-bar melody. It’s kind of an R&B, Brazilian rhythm. We don’t have a name for it. We don’t have words for it. But if you wanna…” So I said, “Yeah, we’re here.” Shit, it took three or four days to do “Hot Dawgit.” I think it took one day to do this other song. It was all done, and he said, “You know, it would sound good if it had some voices on it.” I said, “But we don’t have words. What are you gonna do?” He says, “I’ll tell you what, we’ll just say, ‘Way-yo, way-yo…’ ” We finished that, and he was leavin’ to go to the airport. I said, “What are you gonna name this other song?” He says, “Uhhh…call it ‘Sun Goddess.’ ” And he said, “Don’t worry. Put ‘Sun Goddess’ on the album, but the single is ‘Hot Dawgit.’ ”
I think “Hot Dawgit” sold about five copies. But once again, Columbia Records called and said, “The single is gettin’ a little airplay, and it’s selling a couple here and there, but people are comin’ in and asking for the album like it’s a single. People are coming in asking for ‘Sun Goddess.’ And it’s not on the single, so they’re buying the whole album.”
And on that record, Maurice White played, Verdine [White] played on it. At least three or four Earth, Wind & Fire guys played on it, especially in the rhythm section. So later that year, Maurice said, “We’re gonna go out and do a tour. You wanna come? You open, and then we’ll come on, and we’ll bring you back on to play with us, and we’ll do ‘Sun Goddess.’ ” So we did about twenty-five dates that fall [of ’74], and that was an experience, because, being a jazz trio, you don’t play 18,000–20,000-seat auditoriums; and you don’t travel by your own private plane; and when [the plane] lands in private airports, you don’t have six limousines waiting for you; and you don’t have three or four semitrucks and two buses of crew. So it was really an experience.
We needed a cover for the album, and we were in California. And [Columbia] booked this studio and this photographer [Norman Seeff], and they said, “He’s a great photographer.” The art design/cover guy at Columbia Records, John Berg, he set it all up. And we went there, and he’s just gonna take a picture of the group for the back of the album, and a picture of me for the front of the album. I had the braces, because I needed braces. He took the picture, and I said, “Okay, great.” And he says, “You know, just to experiment, let me put a red line down the center of your face, down to your nose, down to your lips, down to your chin, and then turn to the side. And I’m gonna shoot it, because I think, after I develop it, I wanna make that red line…dah dah doo doo doo.” So we did that. And he said, “Do you mind if I just put a white line…?” We were just havin’ fun, right? “Do you mind if I put a black line…?” So the guys are laughin’ their asses off. And I let him shoot it. No way was that gonna be the cover. No way, no way.
But he sent the picture back to Columbia Records, and [Berg] had won awards for covers. He was really, really good, and he just insisted. I think even Bruce [Lundvall, vice-president in charge of jazz at Columbia] was like, “Ramsey, this is outstanding.”
Anyway, long story short, I said, “Okay, go on and do it.” It’s one of the periods in my life that I laugh at. .
Now in his seventy-sixth year, Ramsey Lewis has, to date, released seventy-six albums. His most recent is titled Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey.