The term “crossover artist” wasn’t used much in jazz until after the fusion era (the jazz/rock explosion from the late ’60s to mid-’70s), and was coined when some jazz singers and musicians added pop and R&B elements to keep or increase their popularity.
But 79-year-old pianist Ramsey Lewis has always proven ahead of his time. He even pre-dated fusion with his trio’s instrumental version of R&B singer Dobie Gray’s hit “The In Crowd” — a Lewis title track that rose to No. 5 as a 1965 single, and helped his live album reach No. 2 — both on the pop charts.
Along with his bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, Lewis was already 10 years into his recording career, but proved his success was no fluke the following year. He hit the pop charts again with a swinging take on rock group The McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy,” from his live LP Hang on Ramsey. Ironically, the idea to record both songs — each of which was recorded live, and turned into an audience sing-along — originated outside of the trio.
“Eldee, Redd and I were about to record our 17th album, ‘The In Crowd,’ at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C.,” Lewis says by phone from his home in Chicago. “On the previous three or four, we’d tried to include what we called a fun song on each album, and we were at a coffee shop discussing which tune that would be for this one. We couldn’t think of one. The waitress asked what we were doing, and when we told her, she asked, ‘Have you heard that Dobie Gray song?’ I hadn’t. But there was a jukebox there, so she went over and put it on. And we knew it could work, so we went and bought the 45 and learned it, and I couldn’t believe it ended up putting us on the charts alongside The Beatles and Elvis Presley.”
“With ‘Hang On Sloopy,’ I was driving from Chicago to Atlantic City with my wife Edwina, since deceased, and some friends when it came on the radio. And I thought it was all right, although not something I’d record. But she said, ‘Ramsey, you should play this.’ I thought it was too simple of a song, but they all kept on me about it, so I worked it out with the trio. And when we played it, people starting singing along with it! So again, Chess Records released it as a single.”
When Young and Holt left Lewis’ trio in 1966, it inadvertently led to a third phase in the pianist’s career. Cleveland Eaton took over the bass chair, and Lewis’ new drummer was a young Memphis native named Maurice White — who stayed with the trio until 1970. A year later, he formed the future R&B supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire and became its lead vocalist.
“Chess had its own studios and production band,” Lewis says, “and Maurice was the staff drummer who played on various records. He was a nice, soft-spoken, clean-cut guy, and he’d pull me off to the side occasionally and ask why I had my publishing company, booking agent, and all kinds of other questions about the industry. He formed a band called the Salty Peppers in Chicago before he started Earth, Wind & Fire in Los Angeles, but I knew he could play everything from R&B to straight-ahead, since he’d played with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. So I asked him to be in my trio; he said he would, and we had a ball. I just couldn’t believe such a quiet, introverted guy formed the Earth, Wind & Fire theatrical blend of R&B, rock, and funk that we all came to know and love.”
White was replaced by drummer Morris Jennings, but returned to produce Lewis’ 1974 LP Sun Goddess, which featured several Earth, Wind & Fire band members and climbed multiple charts as well. And Lewis has continued his affiliation with the band. White may have retired from public performances 20 years ago, but the group’s other acclaimed vocalist, Philip Bailey, tours as a singing percussionist with the Ramsey Lewis Electric Band, which will appear at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach on Feb. 25.
“I had a tour of Japan and South Korea a few years ago, and was asked to bring a singer,” Lewis says. “Someone suggested Philip, and I thought it was a great idea, and was happy that he agreed to do it. He can sing everything from standards to Earth, Wind & Fire songs, and he plays percussion on several instrumental and vocal numbers. It’s some great stuff. We do several dates with him a year now.”
The venerable Lewis is clearly still part of the in crowd. His next South Florida performance is later this month at the Knight Concert Hall in Miami, with vocalists Gregory Porter and Lisa Fischer.
Porter, a real-life cat in the hat with his ever-present chapeau, was set to be a college football star until he sustained a career-ending shoulder injury. But he’s made an impact with his soulful voice, which can range from a gospel-tinged croon to rapid-fire scat-singing. The late-blooming 43-year-old won the first of what will likely be multiple Grammy Awards in 2014 for his latest CD, Liquid Spirit.
Fischer’s soaring voice dominated the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary on backing vocalists called 20 Feet From Stardom, despite the fact that several other notable backup singers were also featured. The 56-year-old has toyed with a solo career, but since 1989 she’s toured as a backing vocalist with the Rolling Stones. Fischer just returned from an Australian tour with the ageless rock band, and has increasingly been featured in duet performances with lead singer Mick Jagger over the years. “Gimme Shelter,” in fact, has made her a YouTube star.
“I’ve never played with Gregory or Lisa before,” Lewis says, “and it’ll be a one-time show. Larry Rosen [the noted producer who created the “Jazz Roots” series this concert is a part of] came up with the idea. Gregory has also recorded ‘The In Crowd,’ so we’ll probably play that together during one of our sets. And Larry liked a holiday album I’d done in the ’60s called ‘Sounds of Christmas,’ so he wanted Lisa to be there and sing some of those tunes with us.”
A native as well as a resident of Chicago, Lewis has scoped out other locations to live in, but he’s always chosen to stay in the Windy City for the reasons that make it second to none.
“I toyed with the idea of moving to either New York City or L.A.,” he says, “since it seemed like everybody was moving to one or the other. But neither one really did it for me. And by that time, I’d had some success here. Chicago allowed me to be a local boy who made good, and it pats me on the back for moving from the bar on the corner to the big auditorium downtown, where people are willing to pay more money to see me.
“I still play here once or twice a year, and we always sell out and have standing-room only. It’s a great artistic city, with jazz, blues, classical, gospel, theater, opera and ballet. Everything’s here. If you’re serious, they wait for you to get it together. If you’re bullshitting, they drop you like a hot potato. So I’m blessed. Why would I move?” Lewis said.
A three-time Grammy Award winner, Lewis’ success extends not only well beyond the ’70s, but well beyond music. In 1983, he recorded the aptly-titled Reunion album with Young and Holt, followed in the next year by the duet LP The Two of Us with iconic singer Nancy Wilson. A Classic Encounter paired Lewis with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in 1988; We Meet Again with fellow piano icon Dr. Billy Taylor, since deceased, in 1989. Lewis also started the successful crossover project Urban Knights in 1995, collaborating with artists like Earl Klugh, Dave Koz and Grover Washington Jr. on several CDs over the next decade.
The pianist even became a deejay in 1997, hosting a popular jazz show on Chicago’s WNUA-FM that turned into the syndicated Legends of Jazz program that went nationwide through 2009. It even became a similarly-titled, 13-episode PBS series in 2006, turning Lewis into a TV personality as he hosted the likes of Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Benny Golson, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Kurt Elling.
Lewis’s next project will be an electric band CD called Taking Another Look, set to be the first release in March on his own new label, Ramsey Lewis Records. It will be a collection of new compositions, re-interpretations of material from the 1974 Sun Goddess album, and an instrumental version of the Stevie Wonder soul classic “Living For the City.”
“I’d played a festival that Stevie was also on in the early ’70s,” says Lewis, “and he was getting ready to record ‘Living For the City.’ He asked me to come to his dressing room so he could play me the instrumental interlude from it. They were such interesting chords, and he was so excited about it. Once he recorded it, I fell in love with the tune, and had to record it myself. And when we play it, people sing along.”
Just call it Lewis’s latest crossover.
See Ramsey Lewis, Gregory Porter and Lisa Fischer at 8 p.m. on Dec. 19 at the James L. Knight Concert Hall, 400 S.E. 2nd Ave., Miami ($25-150, 305-416-5970).