Who was/is Ramsey Lewis ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
will be 75 years old in 2010. In a recording career which began in 1956, he has released over 80 albums, which must make him one of the most prolific artists ever. No less than 30 of these albums had reached the US chart by 1985, and he had also accumulated 19 US pop chart singles by 1976 and 19 US R&B chart singles between 1964 and 1987.
Of course, for those who are not fans of mainstream jazz/R&B, he is certainly best known for his 1965 US Top 5 single, 'The "In" Crowd', and this track was certainly known in the UK as a turntable hit, if not a chart item, although he did actually make the Top 40 of the UK singles chart in 1972 with his version of 'Wade In The Water', six years after his sole visit to the UK album chart with the live album, 'Hang On, Ramsey'.
Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born in Chicago in May, 1935, and was taking piano lessons from an early age — some sources say four, others six. He continued his studies at Chicago Music College and Chicago's DePaul University, At age fifteen, he joined a jazz band, The Cleffs, and circa 1956, formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio with two other members of The Cleffs, Eldee Young (bass) and Isaac 'Redd' Holt (drums). Their debut LP, 'Ramsey Lewis & The Gentlemen Of Swing' was released in 1956, when all three were in their early twenties. The album was apparently released on Argo Records, a subsidiary of the great Chicago blues/R&B label, Chess Records, which started in 1950 after brothers Leonard & Phil Chess changed the company name from Aristocrat Records — they had been partners with two others in Aristocrat since 1947, but after buying out the other partners, decided to name their company after the family name.
Chess Records was one of the great American independent labels, along with Sun, Elektra, Atlantic and many more, and first established itself as a major home for blues acts, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and more, but during the mid-1950s, expanded into rock'n'roll with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and others. The label's success with Berry classics like 'Maybellene' and 'Roll Over Beethoven' in 1956 must have encouraged it to experiment further with different musical styles, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio were conveniently local. Although their debut album failed to make the US chart, it was clearly sufficiently promising for both label and artists to follow it up in 1958 with 'Ramsey Lewis & The Gentlemen Of Jazz', and also in 1958, the trio backed vibraphone player Lem Winchester (1928-1961) on an album titled 'A Tribute To Clifford Brown'; Brown was a bebop trumpeter who died in a car crash in Pennsylvania in 1956 at the age of 25.
1959 also brought two LPs by the trio, 'Down To Earth (Music from the Soil)' and 'An Hour With The Ramsey Lewis Trio', while only one, 'Stretching Out', appeared in 1960. Lewis was obviously doing something right, as 1961 brought two more LPs, 'More From Soil' and 'Never On Sunday'. By the time of their ninth album, 'Sound Of Christmas' (released in late 1962), the Ramsey Lewis Trio were sufficiently popular to briefly reach the 'Billboard' album chart for the first time, and this seasonal album returned to the US chart at the end of each successive year for the remainder of the decade. 1962 also brought two more LPs, 'Bossa Nova' and 'The Sound Of Spring', and 1963, two more, 'Pot Luck' and 'Barefoot Sunday Blues'.
1964 was the year when the Ramsey Lewis Trio made a significant breakthrough in the mainstream US charts, firstly with 'Bach To The Blues', an album which emphasized Lewis's mastery of both classical and jazz music, and stayed in the LP chart for nearly two months, and later in the year with a Top 75 single, their instrumental version of Chris Kenner's 'Something You Got', taken from the live album, 'The Ramsey Lewis Trio At The Bohemian Caverns', which charted for three months and peaked only just outside the Top 100.
However, 1965 was by far the Trio's best year thus far, with 'The "In" Crowd', a US Top 5 single which was also the title track of a US Top 3 album which stayed in the chart for just short of a year. Wikipedia provides interesting information about this familiar song: —The "In" Crowd' is a 1965 song, written by Billy Page, arranged by his brother Gene and originally performed by Dobie Gray on his album 'Dobie Gray Sings for 'In' Crowders That 'Go Go".
His Motown-like version reached #13 in the US Billboard charts. Despite the Mods' admiration of the song, and the fact that they took its lyrics as depiction of their own lifestyles, it was not only Gray's rendition that made the song an 'evergreen'. The Ramsey Lewis Trio recorded an instrumental version of the tune later that same year at the suggestion of a coffee shop waitress. Their jazzy take, recorded live in a Washington, D.C. night club, was used for many years as background music of Jimmy Savile's `Savile's Travels' and Jimmy Savile's Old Record Club on BBC Radio 1. The First Gear also recorded the song in 1965 (using Jimmy Page as a session guitarist), and numerous artists have covered the song since. These include The Ventures, The Fourmost, Young-Holt Unlimited, The Mamas & The Papas, Jack Jones, Joe Jackson, Bryan Ferry (who in 1974 finally made it a hit in the UK), Julee Cruise, Petula Clark, Maurice Williams, Quincy Jones, James Last and The Chipmunks. The Ramsey Lewis Trio also recorded a smooth jazz version of the song in the 2004 album 'Time Flies', 39 years after recording their original instrumental version".
Wikipedia also notes that after this major success in 1965, the Trio perhaps unsurprisingly concentrated less on jazz material. After a "hits" compilation titled 'Choice! The Best Of The Ramsey Lewis Trio' in late 1965, which appeared on Cadet Records (like Argo, another Chess subsidiary label) almost reached the Top 50 of the US album chart, and another minor seasonal hit with 'Jingle Bells', 1966 started with a bang for the trio with a live album, 'Hang On, Ramsey!', which spent six months in the US chart, peaking well inside the Top 20, and also gave Lewis a UK album chart debut. The album included another US Top 20 single in 'Hang On Sloopy', which charted shortly before the album, and also included two further US hit singles in 'A Hard Day's Night' (Top 30) and 'Hi Heel Sneakers Part 1' (Top 75), which emphasised the move away from jazz towards pop and rock.
Things seemed to be going very well, but at this point, a highly significant change occurred, when Young and 'Red' Holt decided to leave the Trio to launch their own band, to which they gave the name Young-Holt Unlimited (mentioned above for their version of 'The "In" Crowd'), recruiting a third member, pianist Don Walker. Once again, this was an instrumental trio, and in its quite successful life of around two years, achieved three US chart albums, 'Wack Wack' (Top 150, billed as Young-Holt Trio, 1967), after which Ken Chaney replaced Walker, 'Soulful Strut' (Top 10, 1968) and 'Just A Melody' (Top 200, 1969), plus three chart singles, 'Wack Wack' (Top 40, 1966/7), 'Soulful Strut' (Top 3, certified gold, 1968) and 'Who's Making Love', Top 75, 1969). They continued recording into the 1970s, but without charting again. It is reported that a reunion of the original Ramsey Lewis Trio took place in 1983.
In 1966, Lewis replaced the departing duo with Cleveland Eaton (bass, from Birmingham, Alabama, whose website suggests he spent 16 years as bass player with Count Basie) and Maurice White (drums and percussion). From this point on, the name of the act changed to Ramsey Lewis, and at the end of 1966 came more chart action with both an album and a single titled 'Wade In The Water', which made the US Top 20 in their respective charts, while the single also made the UK Top 40. This song was originally a spiritual, and among those who have recorded vocal versions are The Golden Gate Quartet, Odetta, Big Mama Thornton and Eva Cassidy, while others who have released instrumental versions include Harvey Mandel, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and Billy Preston, The 'Wade In The Water' album also included two more US hit singles in Stevie Wonder's 'Up Tight' (Top 50) and Lennon & McCartney's 'Day Tripper' (Top 75).
Three new Ramsey Lewis albums appeared in 1967, including the two that are reissued here, but before them came 'Goin'Latin', which included a minor hit single titled 'One, Two, Three'. 'The Movie Album', as might be expected, is a series of film themes done instrumentally by Lewis, Eaton and White, with an orchestra — Herb Wong's original sleeve note cannot really be improved upon in terms of discussion of the material, so the undersigned will not try to do so. In all honesty, the album's chart performance might have been regarded as disappointing in that it peaked some way outside the Top 100, and wasn't listed for much more than a single month, but nevertheless it was Lewis's ninth US chart LP since 1962. Possibly its lack of a chart single meant a shortage of airplay, an essential for major success...
The 'Dancing In The Street' album was released three months after 'The Movie Album', in the autumn of 1967, and perhaps because it did include a minor hit single in the title track, which was initially a 1964 million seller for Martha (Reeves) & The Vandellas, it fared rather better commercially than 'The Movie Album', peaking not far outside the Top 50 during a four month chart residency. For the 'Dancing In The Street' album, some might suggest that Herb Wong's original sleeve note is less impressive than the one he wrote for 'The Movie Album', but, of course, he is/was a disc jockey...
Wikipedia is interesting on 'Dancing In The Street', the song: "Produced by William 'Mickey' Stevenson and written by Stevenson and Marvin Gaye, the song highlighted the concept of having a good time in whatever city the listener lived. The idea for dancing came to Stevenson from watching people on the streets of Detroit cool off in the summer in water from opened fire hydrants. They appeared to be dancing in the water. The song was conceived by Stevenson who was showing a rough draft of the lyrics to Gaye disguised as a ballad. When Gaye read the original lyrics, however, he said the song sounded more danceable. With Gaye and Stevenson collaborating, the duo composed the single with Kim Weston in mind to record the song. Weston passed on the song and when Martha Reeves came to Motown's Hitsville USA studios, the duo presented the song to Reeves. Hearing Gaye's demo of it, Reeves asked if she could arrange her own vocals to fit the song's message". 21 years later, another highly successful version of the song was recorded; Wikipedia again: "A second hit version was done by Mick Jagger and David Bowie as a duo in 1985, as part of the Live Aid charity movement. The original plan was to perform a track together live, with Bowie performing at Wembley Stadium and Jagger at the JFK Stadium, until it was realized that the satellite link-up would cause a half-second delay that would make this impossible unless either Bowie or Jagger mimed their contribution, something neither artist was willing to do. Instead, the pair decided to cover 'Dancing in the Street', (having rejected an earlier possibility, 'One Love' by Bob Marley).
In June 1985, Bowie was recording his contributions to the 'Absolute Beginners' soundtrack at Abbey Road Studios, and so Jagger arranged to fly in to record the track there. A rough mix of the track was completed in just four hours, at which point the pair went straight out to London Docklands to film a video with director David Mallet. Thirteen hours after the start of recording, this also was completed. Jagger arranged for some minor musical overdubs in New York. The video was shown twice at the Live Aid event. Soon afterwards the track was issued as a single, with all profits going to the charity. 'Dancing In The Street' topped the UK charts for four weeks, and reached number seven in the United States. Bowie and Jagger would perform the song once more, at the Prince's Trust Concert on June 20, 1986. It is the last UK Number One single to date for Bowie, and the only Number One success for Jagger in his native country as a solo artist". This is all quite interesting, of course, but my memory suggests that the song was also designed as an antidote to the Detroit race riots of 1967 in which 43 people (including 33 non-whites) were killed.
However, as the Martha & The Vandellas original was in 1964, and the two 1967 hit versions were by Ramsey Lewis (an instrumental, of course) and The Mamas & The Papas, it must be assumed that my memory is incorrect.
US chart success continued for Ramsey Lewis, as 1968 produced two more hit LPs, 'Up Pops Ramsey Lewis' and 'Maiden Voyage', which both included minor US hit singles, 'Soul Man' and 'Since You've Been Gone' respectively. Both albums peaked just outside the Top 50, the earlier one remaining listed for nearly eight months and the later one for five months. The first album of 1969 was 'Mother Nature's Son', and the entire LP was made up of songs by John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Despite including a minor hit single in 'Julia', the album peaked outside the US Top 150.
John Tobler, Washington (UK) April, 2010