Ramsey Lewis Biography

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis, 27 May 1935, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Lewis started playing piano at the age of six. He graduated from school in 1948, after winning both the American Legion Award as an outstanding scholar and a special award for piano services at the Edward Jenner Elementary School. He began his career as an accompanist at the Zion Hill Baptist Church, an experience of gospel that never left him. He later studied music at Chicago Music College with the idea of becoming a concert pianist, but left at the age of 18 to marry. He found a job working in a record shop and joined the Clefs, a seven-piece dance band. In 1956, he formed a jazz trio with the Clefs’ rhythm section (whom he had known since high school) - bass player Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt. Lewis made his debut recordings with the Argo record label, which later became Chess Records. He also had record sessions with prestigious names such as Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry and Max Roach.

In 1959, he played at Birdland in New York City and at the Randall’s Island Festival. In 1964, ‘Something You Got’ was a minor hit, but it was ‘The In Crowd’, an instrumental cover version of Dobie Gray’s hit, that made him famous, reaching number 5 in the US charts and selling over a million copies by the end of 1965. Lewis insisted on a live sound, complete with handclaps and exclamations, an infectious translation of a black church feel into pop. His follow-up, ‘Hang On Sloopy’, reached number 11 and sold another million. These hits set the agenda for his career. Earnings for club dates increased tenfold. His classic ‘Wade In The Water’ was a major hit in 1966, and became a long-standing encore number for Graham Bond. The rhythm section of Young and Holt left and resurfaced as a funk outfit in the mid-70s, variously known as Redd Holt Unlimited and Young-Holt Unlimited. Lewis had an astute ear for hip, commercial sounds: his replacement drummer Maurice White left in 1971 to found the platinum mega-sellers Earth, Wind And Fire.

Lewis never recaptured this commercial peak; he attempted to woo his audience by using synthesizers and disco rhythms, and continued securing Billboard Top 100 hits well into the 70s. His album success was a remarkable achievement, with over 30 of his albums making the Billboard Top 200 listings. The In Crowd stayed on the list for almost a year, narrowly missing the top spot. Mother Nature’s Son was a tribute to the Beatles, while the Newly Recorded Hits in 1973 was a dreadful mistake: the originals were far superior. By the 80s he was producing middle-of-the-road instrumental albums and accompanying singers, most notably Nancy Wilson. In the late 90s he was involved with the Urban Knights, a trilogy of releases with Grover Washington Jnr. and Omar Hakim. Nevertheless, it is his 60s hits - simple, infectious and funky - that will long endure.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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