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.

Born: May 27, 1935, Chicago, IL
Died: September 12, 2022, Chicago, IL

Throughout his career, Lewis was the embodiment of jazz crossover. His affinity for gospel and blues tunes melded seamlessly with easygoing, unfettered forays into the rock and soul standards of the 1960s — a transaction that yielded major dividends with a trio album recorded at Washington D.C.’s fabled Bohemian Caverns in 1965. The title track of that album — “The ‘In’ Crowd,” a cover of Dobie Gray’s rhythm-and-blues hit from the previous year — made its own leap into the charts, spending 16 weeks on the Billboard Top 100 and rising as high as No. 5. The album spent 12 weeks in the top spot among best-selling R&B albums.

The rowdy, funky, hard-swinging acoustic jazz of Lewis, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt blended nicely with the wildly eclectic musical mélange making its way through the radio airwaves that summer of ’65, including the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself,” Tom Jones’ “What’s New, Pussycat?” and The Beatles’ “Help!” For his part, Lewis received not only chart success with “The ‘In’ Crowd” but also cultural acclamation: the song earned him the Grammy award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance.

Lewis built on his popular success later that year with Hang On, Ramsey! — another live trio album, recorded at the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, Calif. This time the playlist dug even deeper into the contemporary repertory, with a cover of “Hang On, Sloopy!” that reached No. 6 on the R&B chart and No. 11 on the pop chart. Two covers of songs by The Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “And I Love Her,” were included with more traditional standards like “Satin Doll” and “The More I See You.”

Towards the decade’s end, Young and Holt left the trio to form their own jazz combo. They were replaced by bassist Cleveland Eaton and drummer Maurice White. In 1974, Lewis reunited with White — a founder and architect of the seminal soul band Earth, Wind & Fire — to record Sun Goddess, an album whose emphasis fell on amplified instruments, prefiguring what we know as “smooth jazz.” That album topped Billboard‘s Top Soul Albums chart, and its title track became a hit single. Maurice White’s brother Verdine, a bassist with EWF, played and provided vocals on the album, as did the group’s lead vocalist, Philip Bailey. More on NPR

Homepage photo: Ramsey Lewis, seen here performing at the Ontario Jazz Festival in 1981, died Monday at his home in Chicago., Photo credit: Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images


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