Esteemed jazz composer-pianist Ramsey Lewis has died at the age of 87. It was confirmed on his official website that Lewis died in his Chicago home; the announcement included a short obituary, but does not list a cause of death.
Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born on May 27, 1935 in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing projects to Pauline and Ramsey Lewis Sr. His love for music began when he started piano lessons at age four. He took notable advice from his teacher, including “Listen with your inner ear” and “Make the piano sing.” Not long after, he would play the piano at church where his father served as choir director.
Years later in high school, he joined the Clefs, a local band that specialized in a jazz and R&B blend. Lewis, however, also sought to familiarize himself with bebop and other associated styles. After several members of the Clefs were drafted for the Korean War, Lewis, bassist Eldee Young, and drummer Redd Holt formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio. By 1956, they released their first album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Jazz, under Argo Records/Chess.
After a slew of successful gigs in New York, crossover success arrived in 1965 with “The ‘In’ Crowd.” The Top 10 hit allowed Lewis to unexpectedly become a pop star. Back then, it was rare for a jazz record or instrumental to land on the pop charts. However, the single became an essential play on radio and jukeboxes nationwide. It peaked No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, eight slots higher than the Dobie Gray original.
“The ‘In’ Crowd” also won Lewis his first Grammy. He won two others for 1966’s “Hold It Right There” and his 1973 cover of the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy.” After Holt and Young departed from the trio to form their own group, Lewis joined forces with bassist Cleveland Eaton and Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White. They created their own version of “Wade In The Water,” which became a top 40 hit.
However, that record would be Lewis’ last as a jazz musician, as he went on to find continued success in pop and R&B—creating 1974’s Sun Goddess, with production and songwriting from White and featuring members from Earth Wind & Fire.
In 2007, he was named a Jazz Master—the highest honor for a jazz musician in the country—by the National Endowment for the Arts. “The ‘In’ Crowd” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009 and Lewis’ personal memorabilia can now be found at the Smithsonian Institution.
Lewis is survived by his wife, Janet, daughters, Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain and sons, Kendall, Frayne and Bobby Lewis. His sons, Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn Lewis preceded him in death.
VIBE sends our deepest condolences to the Lewis family during this time.
Watch the Ramsey Lewis Trio perform “The In Crowd” below.