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Ramsey Lewis has been an iconic leader in the contemporary jazz movement for over fifty years, with an unforgettable sound and outgoing personality that have allowed him to cross over to the pop and R&B charts.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio, with bassist Eldee Young and percussionist Redd Holt, became a fixture on the Chicago jazz scene, releasing their debut album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-men of Jazz, in 1956. Pianist Lewis earned his first gold record, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, for the trio’s swinging version of Billy Page’s song “The ‘In’ Crowd.” Lewis returned to the pop charts in 1966 with versions of “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.” Over the years, the band has undergone membership changes, all the while staying true to Lewis’s high musical standards.
After Young and Holt left the trio to form their own group, the pianist hired a new rhythm section with Cleveland Eaton on bass and Maurice White on drums. When White left the band to form Earth, Wind & Fire, Morris Jennings signed on as the trio’s new percussionist. White returned to produce Lewis’s 1974 smash album entitled Sun Goddess, in which Lewis first experimented with electronic keyboards and featured Earth, Wind & Fire on the album. In 1983, Lewis returned to the studio with Young and Holt for the album Reunion.
Throughout his illustrious career, Lewis, who is an NEA Jazz Master, has also joined forces with countless other artists to create new and innovative music. In 1984, he collaborated with Nancy Wilson on The Two of Us; in 1988, he recorded with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra for the album Classic Encounter; and in 1989, Lewis and Dr. Billy Taylor cut a set of piano duets in We Meet Again. In 1995, Lewis launched the side project Urban Knights, in which he collaborated with a handful of successful crossover jazz stars, including Grover Washington Jr., Earl Klugh, and Dave Koz.
In 1997, Lewis added disc jockey to his résumé, hosting a popular radio show on Chicago’s WNUA-FM that ran until 2009. A new show was syndicated in 2006 under the name Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis and was broadcast on jazz radio stations across the country. That same year, a well-received thirteen-episode Legends of Jazz television series hosted by Lewis was broadcast by PBS on public TV nationwide and featured live performances by a variety of jazz artists, including Larry Gray, Lonnie Smith, Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Kurt Elling, Benny Golson, Pat Metheny and Tony Bennett. Lately, Lewis has been touring with Philip Bailey (Earth, Wind & Fire), John Pizzarelli, and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
It’s a mark of how much Lewis understands what people want from a piece of music that he remains one of jazz’s most broadly popular figures, yet still holds on to an unshakeable degree of respectability.
His gospel references were elevated and precise, enlisting a rousing backbeat but never fraying around the edges.
—New York Times