His easy-going style brought jazz—and joy—into the lives of many casual listeners
by Marshall Bowden
Though he didn’t use a ring modulator or play with an army of electric guitarists, Ramsey Lewis was one of the more popular jazz musicians of the mid 1960s and helped bridge the gap between gospel, blues, soul, jazz, and rock/fusion experiments.
Though he played a lot of straightforward jazz, Lewis is best known for his gospel and blues-inflected pop tunes with a heavy backbeat, such as “The ‘In’ Crowd”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, and “Hang On Sloopy”. At the same time alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who had first come to the public’s attention as a Charlie Parker-style bop saxophone whiz was demonstrating a heavy soul and gospel influence with his famous Quintet, using such music to connect with an audience and expose them to more straightforward small group jazz sounds. Both Lewis and Adderley had huge chart-topping hits at a time when jazz was by and large unable to connect with the larger pop audience.
The Ramsey Lewis trio always included a popular song in their repertoire that could hook a crowd of largely non-jazz listeners, including a jazz version of the operatic “Carmen” and the bluesy “Blues for the Night Owl”. While these garnered some airplay and made the R&B; charts, the breakthrough was a recording of Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” recorded live at The Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C. and released on the The ‘In’ Crowd album.
Between 1964 and 1976 Lewis placed 19 singles on the pop charts utilizing this style that he referred to as “jazz, R&B;, pop and gospel all rolled into one.” The trio was awarded a Grammy for Best Instrumental Recording of 1965. Other hits in the same vein included “Since I Fell For You”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Something You Got”, “Hang on Sloopy”, and “High Heel Sneakers”.
All of these songs utilize simple elements: well worn blues riffs, a strong backbeat, plagal cadences, a party atmosphere (provided by club audiences who clap and at times even sing along with the performance), and familiar tunes. Harmonic sophistication and technical wizardry were not the point of these performances, as Lewis himself pointed out: “The most intricate chord in the whole thing, I think, is a seventh” he told Downbeat.
As so often happens, the sudden success of the trio brought about dissention, and the group was unable to stay together, with “High Heel Sneakers” being their last chart success together. Lewis knew he had something, though, and he formed a new trio with bassist Cleveland Eaton and Maurice White, who went on to found funk/rock group Earth, Wind, and Fire, on drums.
The group was able to repeat the previous trio’s success with recordings of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and the gospel standard “Wade In the Water”. The album also featured soul numbers like Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “Tobacco Road”. Lewis continued to move in a pop, soul, and funk direction with his music, creating some of the more interesting funk/fusion albums of the early 1970s, Funky Serenity and Sun Goddess, which again featured the work of Maurice White along with his brother Verdine. Ramsey more recently recorded some gospel work with a full chorus and his 1999 album Appassionata brought him back to a trio format and incorporated all the elements and styles he’s worked with over the years quite successfully.
Dizzy Gillespie once commented that Lewis was, in fact, playing fusion music way ahead of the electronic experiments that the word conjures in most of our minds, and I don’t think Gillespie was too far off.
Four years ago I wrote a deep dive into the creation of Ramsey Lewis’ album Sun Goddess, on which he collaborated with Maurice and Verdine White. The piece discusses the careers of Lewis and Earth, Wind & Fire leading up to Sun Godess as well as the deep explorations of funk that Lewis followed it up with. Read Sun Goddess here.