Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis will turn eighty-one next month. He has released more albums that we care or count or dare to collect — but we always enjoy playing them. Especially when we come across one we’ve never seen before. One of the great things about his epic discography is that there’s always something awesome to discover.
For nearly a decade he led the Ramsey Lewis Trio, rounded out by the rhythm section of “Red” Holt and Eldee Young. The early albums lean on jazz standards, but they had their pop breakthrough with a cover of “The In Crowd” in 1965. His backing band left, forming Young-Holt Unlimited (whose sound is characterized by this super swingin’ hit). Holt’s replacement, Maurice White later became a founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire. Lewis never held on to a backing rhythm section as long as he had with his first group, but his albums always feature top performers. Young’s replacement, Cleveland Eaton, stayed with Lewis well into his funkiest years.
Ramsey Lewis had three million-selling mid-sixties hits, pretty unprecedented for a jazz artist. “The In Crowd,” “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water” all came from Lps which included jazz standards and sweet arrangements of pop hits. Wade in the Water augments his regular trio with a brass section and is one of our favorite Ramsey Lewis albums.
Ramsey started playing on a fender rhodes and other electric pianos while he was still recording for the Chess Records jazz-leaning subsidiary Cadet, but he really took on electric keyboards after he started recording for Columbia
Our favorite early electric jams from Ramsey come from Them Changes, which is also unique in being possibly the first album recorded at the club which became First Avenue (it was then the Depot).
When Ramsey left the Chess labels to record for Columbia, he started working with larger groups. Some even included a second pianist.
We came across a copy of his 1973 album Funky Serenity for the first time recently. Ramsey and Eaton (joined by blues drummer Morris Jennings) are in top form on this cover of Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right)”. Funky Serenity has quickly become one of our favorite Ramsey Lewis albums.
A very popular album from this period is Sun Goddess, which finds Ramsey joined by his old friend Maurice White and some of his Earth, Wind and Fire bandmates. The album was another huge pop hit for Ramsey.
We really wanted to include the funky Spiderman song from Ramsey’s next album, Don’t It Feel Good, but we couldn’t find our copy (our record collection at home isn’t very organized!). You’ll have to check it out from the link.
Ramey Lewis still lives in Chicago, but if you look at his official website you’ll be surprised to find the eighty-year-old still tours extensively. He just finished a four night stand at Washington DC’s Blues Alley last weekend, and next month he’ll be in Seoul, South Korea!