Ramsey Lewis, pianist with crossover hit ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’, dies at 87

Ramsey Lewis, a Grammy-winning pianist who had a major pop hit in the 1960s with “The ‘In’ Crowd” and was a central figure in combining jazz with electronic music and other styles , died Sept. 12 at his home in Chicago. . He was 87 years old.

The death, of undisclosed causes, was announced on his website.

Beginning in the 1950s, Mr. Lewis recorded over 75 albums and was one of the most popular jazz musicians of all time. Trained as a classical pianist and raised in gospel music, he had prodigious keyboard skills and weaved various musical influences throughout his performances.

In 1964, he recorded the commercial hit “The Ramsey Lewis Trio Live at the Bohemian Caverns” at a nightclub on U Street NW in Washington. Returning to DC the following year for an encore engagement, Mr. Lewis and his band were at a cafe discussing possible tracks for a follow-up album.

“And our waitress said, ‘What kind of song are you looking for?’ ” Mr. Lewis told the Washington Post in 2006. “We said, well, something fun, maybe something danceable. And she said, ‘You should all do ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’ by Dobie Gray.’ ”

The song, written by Billy Page, was a Top 20 hit for Grey, a rhythm and blues singer. Mr. Lewis and his trio, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, worked out an instrumental arrangement of the tune.

“We rehearsed it Tuesday and Wednesday, and that Thursday at Bohemian Caverns was the first night we played it in public,” Mr. Lewis told the Post. “We closed the set with it, and people started to really get into it. We did it again at the next show, and the same thing happened.

“And the rest is history. Is that what they say?

As Mr. Lewis led the way with his piano, playing a simple but infectious melody while throwing tantalizing dynamic changes, the audience cheered along with the midtempo beat.

“I mean, if you listen to this record, we didn’t coerce or ask any of these people to join us,” Mr. Lewis said in a 2006 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. “We started playing this song, and it was dancing down the aisles.”

“The ‘In’ Crowd” became one of the most popular instrumental tracks of the era, peaking at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, ranking among songs by the Beatles, Supremes and Beach Boys. Mr. Lewis won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrument for Small Group – the first of three Grammys – and the album sold over a million copies.

Since the formation of his trio and the release of his first album, “Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Swing”, in 1956, Mr. Lewis had favored an eclectic, even populist approach, quite similar to that of pianists Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal . He reconfigured pop songs in his own way, mixing in some jazz standards and R&B tunes, while mixing in introductions and cadences echoes of Bach and Chopin.

“I’ve always had a broad view,” he told Down Beat magazine. “If it was good music, I could enjoy it.”

About a year after “The ‘In’ Crowd” was released, Mr. Lewis’ trio broke up and he formed a new band which included drummer Maurice White, who went on to found the R&B group Earth, Wind and Fire.

He had several other pop-jazz hits, including the singles “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water”, both from 1966. With his growing success, however, Mr. Lewis faced critical backlash from some writers and musicians who thought he was diluting his musical talent to score pop hits with unchallenging material.

“It’s a very sensitive area that we’re getting into,” Mr Lewis told Down Beat. “Jazz as entertainment and jazz as art. …. Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s playing was intended for dancers, but something happened where jazz entertainment ended up being despised by musicians.

In the 1970s, Mr. Lewis turned to electronic keyboards and synthesizers and toured with Earth, Wind and Fire. His 1974 album “Sun Goddess” became a big hit, but with its disco beats, funk overtones, and emphasis on electronics, it was squarely in the realm of jazz fusion or “contemporary jazz.” Mr. Lewis’s new music was a far cry from the simplicity of the low-key acoustic trio albums he had recorded in the past. He recorded songs by country artists, the Beatles, Lionel Richie and Janet Jackson, making no apologies for following popular trends.

“I tried to stay true to my goals,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “Exploring interesting harmonic progressions and working with melodies that sing.”

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born on May 27, 1935 in Chicago. Her father was a maintenance worker who led a church choir and her mother cleaned houses.

Mr. Lewis began playing the piano at age 4, was performing in church at age 9, and studied classical technique for years at a Chicago conservatory and at DePaul University .

“When I was 13,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “I thought I would travel the world playing classical music.”

Because opportunities for black classical musicians were limited, Mr. Lewis began working with jazz musicians before forming his trio and signing with Chicago-based Chess Records. He then recorded for Columbia, GRP and other labels.

By the 1990s, Mr. Lewis had largely abandoned his experiments with electronic music and returned to the standard piano and jazz styles of his early years. He has been praised for his insightful renditions of standards such as “Body and Soul” and for his recordings of jazz-influenced classic tunes on his 1999 album “Appassionata.”

When not touring concerts, Mr. Lewis had a second career as a radio DJ with a daily schedule in Chicago. He was also the host of a weekly television show on the cable network BET, at various times called “Jazz Central” and “Sound & Style”. His syndicated radio show, “Legends of Jazz”, was adapted for television on PBS in 2006.

In addition to performing and broadcasting, Mr. Lewis has written music, including a ballet suite, a string quartet and a symphonic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, “Proclamation of Hope” (2009), which draws on the African-American musical traditions.

Mr. Lewis was 80 when he debuted his Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 2007, he was named the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor for jazz musicians.

His marriage to Geraldine Taylor, with whom he had seven children, ended in divorce. He was predeceased by two sons. Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Janet Tamillow Lewis; five children; 17 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

“All music is folk music,” Mr. Lewis told the Post in 2010, explaining how he composed his musical evocation of Lincoln. “Music comes from people and is meant to move people and connect with people. At 75, I finally categorized my music: it’s music for people.”

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