Ramsey Lewis, Jazz Pianist Who Became a Pop Star, Dies at 87
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 by his wife, Janet Lewis. No cause was given.
Mr. Lewis, who had been leading his own group since 1956, had recorded with the revered drummer Max Roach and was well known in jazz circles but little known elsewhere when he and his trio (Red Holt on bass and Eldee Young on drums) recorded a live album at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington in May 1965. The album included a version of “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which had been a hit for the R&B singer Dobie Gray just a few months earlier, and which was released as a single.
Instrumental records were a rarity on the pop charts at the time, jazz records even more so. But the infectious groove, Mr. Lewis’s bluesy piano work and the ecstatic crowd reaction helped make the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s rendition of “The ‘In’ Crowd” a staple on radio stations and jukeboxes across the country. It eventually reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 — eight points higher than the Dobie Gray original had reached.
Two more singles in a similar vein quickly followed: covers of the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy” and the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” Both “The ‘In’ Crowd” and “Hang On Sloopy” won Grammy Awards.
After Mr. Holt and Mr. Young left to form their own group, Mr. Lewis formed a new trio with Cleveland Eaton on bass and Maurice White, later a founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, on drums. That group had a Top 40 hit in 1966 with a version of the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”
That proved to be the end of Mr. Lewis’s career as a purveyor of hit singles, but it was far from the end of his career as a jazz musician. He would go on to record dozens more albums, and in 2007 the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz musician.
In the 1990s, Mr. Lewis hosted a syndicated weekly radio program, “Legends of Jazz.” In 2006 he hosted a public radio series of the same name, which featured live performances by Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Tony Bennett and others.
A complete obituary will follow.