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Ramsey Lewis: In with the In Crowd

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When I was a kid, we’d put on our favorite records and have dance parties.  We’d mix it up, so a typical party would have a Jackie Wilson record, an Otis Redding record, an Aretha Franklin record—and a record by The Ramsey Lewis Trio. Even all these years later, just listen to tunes like “The In Crowd,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Hang on Sloopy.” Those tunes have cool hippy grooves, and they’re just begging you to dance to them!

I didn’t know until I became a professional jazz musician decades later that Ramsey Lewis was a jazz artist. Back then, we didn’t have categories for music. It wasn’t rock & roll or jazz or soul, it was just good music.

Now I know that The Ramsey Lewis Trio—with Eldee Young and Redd Holt—debuted in 1956 with Ramsey Lewis & His Gentlemen of Jazz. That record went gold, and won them a Best Jazz Performance Grammy award for “The In Crowd.” His next big hits, “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water,” topped the charts in 1966, when I was a dancing ten-year-old.

The trio personnel changed over the years. Maurice White joined the band when Holt left, and when White left, he formed Earth, Wind & Fire, which basically sounds like The Ramsey Lewis Trio—with nine more guys and a kalimba! Lewis actually used Earth, Wind & Fire to back him up on his 1974 electric album, Sun Goddess. That was another gold record. (It was part of my collection too!)

Lewis has been playing and recording steadily for over five decades—his own work, and collaborations with other artists, from Nancy Wilson to Dr Billy Taylor to Grover Washington Jr. For the past fifteen years, he has also been an important voice in the media, first with a popular show on Chicago radio for a dozen years, then with a national radio show, Legends of Jazz. In 2006, PBS aired Legends of Jazz on television, with a stellar line-up of performers. In 2007, Lewis received the coveted Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ramsey Lewis’ piano playing is timeless. You can hear bebop, Latin, blues, and soul, with a heavy dose of gospel. He transports me, enchants me. Even in my youth, he made me feel more romantic than I was prepared to feel!

We’re in for a treat on June 22 when Ramsey Lewis takes to the stage at the Burton Cumming Theatre to share music from Ramsey, Taking Another Look. It’s a backward look at his electric Sun Goddess phase, and a forward look to a whole new generation of kids who will want to throw dance parties like I did when they hear his groove…


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