Change was everywhere in the mid-1960s. Turning on the radio every day, it seemed like there were new and wildly popular sounds in R&B and rock ’n’ roll, while us jazz musicians were holding our own. And turning on the TV showed how much was happening—sometimes so quickly—across America. Eldee Young, Redd Holt, and I also had our own view of these movements as we traveled constantly from one coast to another and back again—without neglecting our lives back in Chicago. The thing is, though, at the start of 1965, we had no idea that this would be the year that the Ramsey Lewis Trio would go through its own biggest changes when fortune came upon us so suddenly.
As the year began, we were still doing well with our version of Chris Kenner’s “Something You Got.” We had recorded that one in the summer of 1964 as part of the first live album we did at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC. That single became something of a hit by late fall, going as high as number twenty-three on the Billboard chart in November. Maybe it’s partially because of this success, and what would happen in the city later, that there has always been something about that place I’ve always liked. The audiences were made up of people from all over, so they were always sophisticated, and they’d stay with you when you played what you wanted to play. You just had to present it to them in the right way. Plus, there is so much to see there during the day.
Not that we had a lot of time to sightsee. The three of us were so busy on the road. We traveled by station wagon, and it was a pretty simple setup: load up the car, put a tarp on top, put more stuff in there, and that was it. Since I didn’t drive at first, Eldee and Redd took turns at the wheel. We’d drive from Chicago to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York—wherever. Mostly, we still played at nightclubs, and that usually would take up one week for each one with all of the driving involved. We’d play the three days over the weekend and do about thirty or forty of them a year. Usually, we’d play each club twice a year: Say, in February and then go back in June, so it would be almost every six months.
One thing happened on our tour that almost took me out—permanently! In the summer of 1965, we were playing in Atlantic City, and for some reason, the three of us decided to go surfing. We went out and waited for a wave to jump on so you could ride it in, but one time, I didn’t do it properly. I did it in a way that I got under the wave and started tumbling and went to the bottom of the ocean and dislocated my shoulder. This took us out of commission for a few weeks. Fortunately, the water wasn’t deep and I could stand up and walk out of the surf. When you’re younger, you just deal with it.
* * *
New York was a whole different experience and almost as challenging as fighting the ocean. We used to play the Blue Note. They’d book three acts at one time, and we were the youngsters. One time they had us with Art Blakey with Lee Morgan and Buddy Rich. They were these fiery guys, then it was the Ramsey Lewis Trio opening. We enjoyed it, but we never said, “We need to play like that.” We had fun playing what we played. In fact, Art Blakey’s pianist Bobby Timmons was always encouraging us for what we were doing. We did play so many clubs: Basin Street East, Basin Street West, Prelude in Harlem, Village Vanguard, and Village Gate. Unfortunately, jazz musicians in New York had this attitude that, first of all, you had to go to New York to get your blessings. Some ended up there, some ended up in Chicago on their way to New York. I thought about making the move myself. But in New York, I saw where piano players and other instrumentalists were kind of copying each other. Then, maybe, they’d go off on their own way. New York is a city with a lot of everything. Maybe that’s part of the problem—it may have been overwhelming. After a few days, it just felt like it was time to go home. Our lives in Chicago were fulfilling enough.
But on one of those early-sixties New York visits, I met John Levy who became my manager for a while. John, as a person and as a businessman, was “what you see is what you get.” He was open and honest. If you wanted his opinion, he’d give you his opinion. If you didn’t want to listen to him, though, he didn’t get huffy. And he always was looking for talent from his office on Fifty-Second Street in Manhattan. Along with myself, he wound up signing Nancy Wilson, Oscar Brown, Jr., and Cannonball Adderley. And he was respected by the artists in the business and by the business people in the entertainment industry. That was something for one of the few major African American managers in jazz at the time. John was also one of the only managers who really knew music from the inside. He started as George Shearing’s bassist and he told John, “I don’t want you to be the bass player, I want you to be the manager.” We all loved him. I don’t know how he did it, but he made each one of us feel that we were his only act. When we’d get to the venue, people spoke highly of him, they loved him. Not that he was bullshitting and leaning toward them and cheating us. He was just a straightforward kind of guy. Things would be much better if we had more people like him in the industry: someone who tells it like it is.
One business change that the trio made was simply cutting back on the number of albums we recorded, especially studio albums. Remember, from the late 1950s into the mid-1960s, we usually were doing two to three albums a year, with that early-sixties period being especially productive. It wasn’t that I had the drive to do that many recordings. It wasn’t that Chess was demanding that we do that many recordings. Again, we just thought that’s what you did—you put out two albums a year. Remember, I say “we” because we were a partnership, I was the piano player, we each had our duties and everything was split into thirds. And then in 1964, the Beatles were on “Ed Sullivan” and said they put out one album a year, or every year and a half. So we took a look at ourselves. Why were we busting our tails to get out a bunch of new tunes every six months? Slowing down made life easier for us. We interpreted a few Beatles songs on our albums back then—“A Hard Day’s Night” and “Day Tripper” being two of them—but I did not think of them on a serious musical level until a few years later. Fortunately, each album sold a little more than the last, and the record company hung with us because they were making money off of us, so they cut us some slack on our decision.
Things could have just continued along that path when we pulled up to Washington to make another live recording at the Bohemian Caverns on May 13, 1965. The morning before, the three of us were sitting in a coffee shop and the waitress went to the jukebox and played this R&B song by Dobie Gray, “The In Crowd.” Redd has his own story on why we took her advice.
Eldee would be with me a lot of times when we’d hang out, especially in DC. We hung out there at the joint where this waitress Nettie Gray had moved. It wasn’t too far from the Howard Theater. Nettie was a foxy, fine, fine, fine barmaid. Where Nettie would go, everybody else gonna go and hang out. So I’d just hang out there. And Nettie—we had played that song on the box, and I liked it then, and Eldee liked it too. But Ramsey came in there with us one day and Nettie said, “Why don’t you all do that tune?” And I said, “Yeah, you know, we’ve been talking about that, and we ought to jump on that, man.”
We looked at each other and all knew right away that it was a fun song. We were looking for a song—not a jazz song—that we thought jazz people could play that could reach out to a wide audience and jazz people. When I first heard “The In Crowd,” I said that’ll do it. We got to the point where we liked to put a fun song on albums. “Something You Got” was a fun song. “Hang On Sloopy” was a fun song. Later that day, we were in rehearsal. I was the musical director, but we would all throw our two cents in. All three of us wanted to reach out and touch the audience and these fun songs were always the way to do it. So the rehearsal was fun because Eldee would say, “Redd if you’re gonna play that, I can do this and vice versa.” We would go around, and we came up with this arrangement for “The In Crowd.” Being that it was a piano group, the piano was the dominant instrument, and we would add bass and drums into what I felt. Fortunately, what I felt was a combination of gospel and classical music, and Eldee and Redd were very seeped in gospel, which was different from most jazz groups that did not come from the church. When I played a solo with block chords, writers like Al Clarke called it a touch of the blues, but it was really just gospel coming out. So, with me, I had less of a jazz background, but the church element was there. Because gospel was all about reach out and touch.
We knew that we couldn’t use gimmicks and tricks to achieve that. You have to do it with the music: melody, rhythm, harmony—all musical devices, crescendos, soft and suddenly get loud, or build to it? How do you use musical devices to grab an audience and hold them, shake them? We would look at each other like, “Wow, we’re doing it.” It got to the point, even before then, that we were able to reach out and touch. The way we were doing it was playing as one unit. Not as a bass/drum/piano unit, but as one unit. The strength was in listening to each other and sending that message out together, rather than the piano or bass and drummer trying to send something out individually. Each of us was trying to complement the other while being aware of everyone on stage. So many jazz musicians sounded like they were playing only for themselves and we didn’t want to be that kind of group.
Eldee was not only a very great rhythm bass player, but he liked Ray Brown and was aware of Percy Heath and other crucial bassists, so he had a big tone and kept great time. He could solo, he loved to solo, and eventually, he got a cello. With the classical background, Eldee playing the cello was a wonderful thing, but he wasn’t brought up playing classical music. He just loved that instrument. The smaller bass, if you will. He’d sing along as he played and it was happy music. Sometimes he’d play along and slap the cello as if to say, “Come on!” People would crack up.
Redd’s drum sound was melodic. He liked to tune his drums and would never bash, he would play the drums. Very rhythmic. He was just a happy guy on the drums. We liked each other onstage and in the dressing room and we’d talk about baseball, joke, have fun, whatever. A lot of people still thought I was the leader, but we were all the leaders, so we were in the same dressing room for every show. That was great.
The "In" Crowd (Live At The Bohemian Caverns, Washington, D.C., 1965)
You can hear all of that dynamic among the three of us throughout The In Crowd album. We also interpreted Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Felicidade” and it was not the only time that I focused on Brazilian music. That all came from when we were playing in San Francisco in a nightclub and these Brazilian musicians came by. While I had heard their music from time to time, being in their presence and hearing them play this lovely, lyrical, romantic sound got me more involved. To this day, I make sure I have Brazilian music in all my programs. And Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” reminded me of my dad. My dad liked Duke Ellington and I grew to love Duke Ellington. It’s such a wonderful song, not a gospel piece, but has such feeling that it’s one of my favorite songs to play. Eldee brought in “Tennessee Waltz,” that country stuff was a good time. As usual back then, Esmond Edwards, with his dry sense of humor, produced it and we didn’t do any overdubs. We thought we had all the songs on the album that needed to be on to sell the record and just put on “The In Crowd” because it was a fun song. The Washington audience had a good time hearing us play it. But we thought the meat and potatoes, the serious compositions, would sell it. Wrong!
It took three months to catch on. We were playing at Minor Key, a club in Detroit. They didn’t serve booze but would seat three or four hundred people. While we were there, we got a call from Phil Chess. He said, “I think you guys have a hit record.” That’s like speaking a foreign language to a jazz musician. Jazz musicians don’t have hit records. So I asked Phil, “What are you talking about?” He said, “You know that record you guys put out, 'The In Crowd'? It’s flying off the shelves.” So that was the turnaround. By September 1965, the single had peaked at number two on the Billboard charts where it spent fourteen weeks. The single wound up selling half a million copies, putting us right up there with those Beatles. This all happened just a few months after I turned thirty.
Needless to say, that kind of popular success changes things. We recorded another live album, Hang On Ramsey!, at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California, that October. Leonard Feather wrote in its liner notes that it was the club’s biggest jazz booking and, “Just before the first set began, there was a line of Lewis fans stretching all the way to the corner and around it.” Our instrumental version of the McCoys’ pop tune “Hang On Sloopy” also did well for us. Still, one of the best things that happened was that we got to play New York’s Carnegie Hall in November of that year. When you walk in the stage door, go backstage, something about that place, when you realize who’s played there, what it’s all about, it’s a different feeling and then during the concert when you get standing ovations at Carnegie Hall, wow! John S. Wilson reviewed us in the New York Times and he got what we were doing when he wrote that, “Crescendos and decrescendos, great roaring splashes of sound and moments of pin-dropping quiet cropped up again and again.” He also wrote, “the three members of the group showed so much musical individuality, and the group as a whole took such imaginative approaches to familiar material, the group stood well apart from similar jazz trios.”
With words like these and with sales of "The In Crowd" up in the stratosphere, some of our jazz contemporaries were chagrined. We could sense it. Other jazz musicians thought we were selling out, thought that we were pandering to the audience to get the response we got. We’d play at the same jazz club where John Coltrane played and we got people up on their feet and it was like, “Who are these guys?” The big guys—like Dizzy Gillespie—appreciated us. He’d give us a big hug. And Sonny Stitt—I’ll never forget seeing him at O’Hare and he was like, “Hey, Ramsey! How you doing?” You can’t impress these guys. They are who they are. There were those who said, “You guys are selling out, not playing with enough bebop in you, not enough outside harmonies. What are you doing?” I don’t know, we’re doing what we like to do. Fortunately, we had enough Dizzy-type guys saying, “Keep up doing what you’re doing.” Other guys, well, it didn’t matter to us.
One of the greats who always will matter to all of us was Duke Ellington. I met him a couple times or more back then. I remember one time in Pittsburgh outside the hotel, I walked up and introduced myself. He was such an open and warm gentleman. He said, “I love your work.” I don’t know if he actually heard it, but he was just that kind of guy. Even now that picture comes back in my mind of him being outside of the hotel and acting as if he knew me.
(I also met Sun Ra on various occasions but never got to know him. We would say hello to each other, but that was about it. I was from the church and European classical music and, as we all know, he came from someplace else.)
Chess tried to pretend there was a rivalry between myself and its other big jazz pianist, Ahmad Jamal. That was just short-lived marketing hype in the midsixties. At one point, the company printed this silly one-page ad in DownBeat with a photo of well-dressed middle-aged white people battling each other next to a caption that just repeated, “Ahmad! Ramsey!” And at the bottom were photos of both of our albums with the sentences, “Don’t Fight. They’re both great!” Really, though, there was never any rivalry. We didn’t know each other well, but he and I would meet sometime on the road and it would be, “Hey, how you doing, Ramsey?” There was one time when Eldee, Redd, and I had heard him play at the Pershing and he played this song. We thought we knew it. That was when we were the house band at the Cloister Inn. We went onstage, tried to play it, stumbled, and were laughing, saying, “Well, I guess we didn’t know it.” Who was there at the bar, but Ahmad Jamal, and he laughing his butt off!
From Gentleman of Jazz: A Life in Music by Ramsey Lewis with Aaron Cohen. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Ramsey Lewis.
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The In Crowd is a live album by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, recorded in 1965 at the Bohemian Caverns nightclub in Washington, D.C., and released on the Argo label. Bohemian Caverns, Washington D.C.What was Ramsey Lewis age? ›
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The song, originally written by Billy Page in 1964 and recorded by Gray on his album Dobie Gray Sings for 'In' Crowders that 'Go Go. ' It was also released as a single, which peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 on February 20, 1965.What caused Ramsey Lewis death? ›
Ramsey Lewis, a pianist who sustained connections between jazz and popular music at a time when those bonds often seemed fragile and imperiled, died on Monday in Chicago, his hometown. He was 87. His death was announced by his manager, Brett Steele, who cited natural causes.What is Ramsey Lewis famous for? ›
Pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis has been a major figure in contemporary jazz since the late '50s, playing music with a warm, open personality that's allowed him to cross over to the pop and R&B charts. Initially emerging with his jazz trio, Lewis broke through with his Grammy-winning 1965 album The In Crowd.What jazz pianist passed away? ›
Ahmad Jamal, the influential jazz pianist whose style influenced generations of musicians for seven decades, died on Sunday, The Washington Post reports. He was 92.Who was the jazz pianist that died in 1984? ›
William James "Count" Basie (/ˈbeɪsi/; August 21, 1904 – April 26, 1984) was an American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer.How many children did Ramsey Lewis have? ›
“Ramsey radiated class, character, and substance,” wrote White in his autobiography. His first marriage ended in divorce, and two sons predeceased him. He is survived by his second wife, Janet (nee Tamillow), two daughters and three sons.
Mr. Lewis was born and raised in Chicago, where his family lived and worked in the shadow of Cabrini-Green. His music studies ran the gamut, from playing the organ on Sundays at his local church to piano lessons at the age of 4 to the Chicago Music College Preparatory School.Where did Ramsey Lewis live? ›
Ramsey Lewis, a jazz pianist who unexpectedly became a pop star when his recording of “The 'In' Crowd” reached the Top 10 in 1965 — and who remained musically active for more than a half century after that — died on Monday at his home in Chicago. He was 87. His death was announced on his website.What did Ramsey Lewis play? ›
Pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis has been a major figure in contemporary jazz since the late '50s, playing music with a warm, open personality that's allowed him to cross over to the pop and R&B charts. Initially emerging with his jazz trio, Lewis broke through with his Grammy-winning 1965 album The In Crowd.