Ramsey Lewis — the Jazz Piano Master from Chicago


Grammy Award winner Ramsey Lewis is an American jazz pianist and composer who has also been enjoying crossover success, together with his own act the Ramsey Lewis Trio. At 15, already proficient in playing the piano, he was first exposed to jazz when he joined the seven-piece band The Cleffs. Then he and the other two Cleffs members (Redd Holt and Eldee Young) would form the Ramsey Lewis Trio long after.

Basically a jazz outfit, the trio success crossed over the pop charts with their hit, “The In Crowd” in 1965. Since then Lewis concentrated more on making pop-flavored tunes while he was becoming more successful, scoring other hits like “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade In The Water.” While different members (including Maurice White, who would then form Earth, Wind and Fire) came and went, Ramsey remained in the core of his act.

He also collaborated with other successful “jazz fusion” artists as well as experimented witih R&B and Latin while staying true to his traditional jazz roots. Aside from performing and recording, Lewis has also hosted radio programs Legends of Jazz and Ramsey Lewis Morning Show in his home city in Chicago, Illinois, where he still lives.


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Lewis’ early music career, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio

Jazz pianist and keyboardist Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 27, 1935. At only the age of four he had begun taking piano lessons, and nine years later Ramsey was proficient enough to play in his first band named The Cleffs. This experience gave him his first exposure to jazz music. He then took two Cleffs members, Isaac “Redd” Holt (drums) and Eldee Young (bass) to form the Lewis Ramsey Trio.

In 1956 the trio released their debut album Ramsey Lewis and his Gentlemen of Swing. Initially, the Ramsey Lewis Trio was contented playing with traditional jazz. But after their second single “The In Crowd” became a big national hit in 1965 — #2 on the Billboard R&B singles chart and #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 — the group decided to fuse jazz with pop elements to further their crossover appeal.

Written by Billy Page, “The In Crowd” also helped Lewis win the first of his three Grammy trophies.

In 1966 Young and Holt left the Ramsey Lewis Trio to form their own act Young-Holt Unlimited. Cleveland Eaton and Maurice White became new members of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. White would also leave the group to form his own act Earth, Wind and Fire, which would become one of the hitmakers in the 1970s. Morris Jennings replaced White in 1970. More lineup shifts ensued in the Trio.

More hits for Ramsey Lewis

Since the success of “The In Crowd,” Lewis had become one of the most successful and sought-after jazz pianists in the country. Other hits to his credit also include:

  • “Hang on Sloopy” (#11 pop, #6 R&B)
  • “Jingle Bells” (#21 pop)
  • “Winter Wonderland” (#23 pop)
  • “Wade in the Water” (#19 pop, #3 R&B)
  • The trio’s cover of the Beatles’ “A Hard Days Night” (#29 both pop and R&B)

In 1976 Ramsey’s crossover appeal invaded the disco world, scoring a top 10 dance hit with “Sun Goddess” (#44 pop, #20 R&B, #5 dance) which also went gold. It was in “Sun Goddess” where Ramsey experimented with electronic keyboards for the first time. Several members of White’s Earth Wind and Fire who also participated in the sessions.

Although Lewis continued to score hits and accolades as a jazz-fusion artist, he still returned to his jazz roots. He also explored more R&B for his jazz material.

Lewis’ collaboration with other artists

In 1984 he reunited with the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s original mates Young and Holt to record the album Reunion. He collaborated with the London’s Philharmonic Orchestra for the LP A Classic Encounter in 1988.

In 1994 Lewis was part of the compilation album Stolen Moment: Red Hot + Cool, which was mounted by non-profit Red Hot Organization in its bid to raise AIDS and funds to support its cause. The album was adjudged “Album of the Year” by TimeMagazine.

Lewis has also collaborated with many other artists such as Grover Washington Jr., Earl Klugh, Nancy Wilson, Dave Koz, and many others.

Lewis as a radio host

Ramsey has also been an active radio host since the 1990s. He presently hosts Legends of Jazz which was created in 1990. In 1997 he also hosted Ramsey Lewis Morning Show on Chicago’s WNUA-FM, a station with a jazz music format. The show went into syndication in 2006, and in 2009 it was cancelled.

Lewis’ other activities and accolades

Aside from these pursuits, Ramsey is also an artistic director of Jazz at Ravinia, a feature of the oldest outdoor music festival in the country, the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois. Ramsey is also a member of the Board of Trustees for Chicago’s Merit School of Music, and Chicago High School for the Arts. He is also the founder of his own non-profit organization the Ramsey Lewis Foundation, which helps at-risk youths to cultivate their artistic side. He also became part of the Honorary Board of Friends at California’s University of the Pacific in 2007 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Loyola University in Chicago in 2008.

He also has two other Grammy awards: one in 1966 for “Hold It Right There” (in the category of Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance – Vocal or Instrumental) and another in 1973 for “Hang on Sloopy” (in the category of Best Rhythm & Blues Instrumental Performance)

Despite his fame that took him to many places and helped him win several awards, Lewis still has his heart in his birthplace, Chicago. He still lives in the Windy City, where his musical roots began.

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