Ramsey Lewis, Jazz Pianist Who Scaled the Pop Charts With ‘The In Crowd,’ Dies

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Ramsey Lewis (Photo: Todd Winter; used with permission)

Ramsey Lewis, the jazz pianist, three-time Grammy winner and NEA Jazz Master who successfully crossed over from the Jazz charts to the Pop charts, most notably with his smash 1965 pop hit “The ‘In’ Crowd,” died today (September 12, 2022). He was 87. The news of his death, peacefully, at his home in Chicago, Ill., was shared by his manager, Brett Steele.

Ramsey E. Lewis Jr. was born in Chicago on May 27, 1935. Growing up in the Cabrini Green housing project, he began taking piano lessons at age four and played piano at church, where his father was choir director. A jazz fan who played lots of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum at home and took his son to jazz concerts, Ramsey Lewis Sr. encouraged him to embrace that music.

When Lewis was a freshman at Wells High School, saxophonist and pianist Wallace Burton, a fellow church musician whose jazz ventures had enticed Ramsey, asked him to join his band, the Clefs, a septet of collegians that blended jazz and R&B. Lewis needed to familiarize himself with bebop and other jazz styles but learned on the run. After the outbreak of the Korean War, the military draft claimed several members of the Clefs, including Burton. The three members who didn’t get drafted—Lewis, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt—formed what would become known as the classic Ramsey Lewis Trio.

In 1956, they released their first album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Jazz, on the Chess label. Three years later, Lewis was invited to perform with the trio at Birdland in New York. Their three-week gig led to performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Village Vanguard, and recordings with Max Roach, Clark Terry and Sonny Stitt.

Lewis broke through in a big way in 1965 with the early crossover smash, “The ‘In’ Crowd.” The instrumental recording reached #5 on the Hot 100, besting the vocal version earlier that year by Dobie Gray, that peaked at #13.

The elegantly funky, Grammy-winning song (written by Gray) was followed by two more hit singles, 1965’s “Hang on Sloopy” at #11 (the same year as the McCoys’ earned a #1 hit with their version) and the traditional gospel number “Wade in the Water,” at #19.

Related: 10 Jazz Singles of the ’60s That Became Pop Hits

After Young and Holt left to form their own group, Young-Holt Unlimited, Lewis continued in the trio format with bassist Cleveland Eaton and future Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White on drums. He subsequently experimented on electronic keyboards in more expansive settings. A high point was his 1974 album Sun Goddess, produced by White and featuring members of Earth, Wind & Fire (whose falsetto specialist Philip Bailey he would tour with years later). The recording established Lewis as a fusion music icon with broad appeal.

Over the years, Lewis has performed and recorded in a remarkable variety of musical settings. Throughout the ’70s, he embraced R&B and Latin music without abandoning mainstream jazz. In 1983, on the album Reunion, he reconstituted his most famous trio.

In 1995, he introduced the crossover supergroup Urban Knights, featuring Grover Washington Jr., Earl Klugh and Dave Koz, for eight albums. In 2005, returning to his gospel roots, Lewis recorded With One Voice, which earned him the Stellar Gospel Music Award for Best Gospel Instrumental Album.

Among his many honors were five honorary doctorate degrees and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist. “The In Crowd” single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and his personal memorabilia reside at the Smithsonian Institution. Lewis received a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award, which placed him in the hallowed company of such piano legends as Ahmad Jamal, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Dr. Billy Taylor and Cecil Taylor.

In his late eighties, Lewis still connected with younger generations. His forthcoming album, The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One, which will be released Nov. 11 by Steele Records, was drawn from livestream performances. Lewis also spent the last year of his life working on his memoir, Gentleman of Jazz, with his co-writer Aaron Cohen. The book will be released via Blackstone Publishing in 2023.

Related: Musicians that we’ve lost in 2022

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  1. Ed
    #1 Ed 13 September, 2022, 00:55

    I saw the trio with Young and Holt at the Bohemian Caverns in 1964 when the album was recorded, Ramsey Lewis at the Bohemian Caverns. I’ve never been able to find that recording, though I’ve tried.

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