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American Routes Shortcuts: Ramsey Lewis

Ramsey Lewis
Ramsey Lewis

This summer, more than ever, the challenge is to be and stay cool. So we’re all about songs and sounds as ways to chill out. We asked musicians, critics and producers just what it means to be cool. Chicago pianist Ramsey Lewis had a huge hit with a song about cool people, “The ‘In’ Crowd," back in 1965. He's also known for adapting tunes like "A Hard Day's Night” and "Dancing in the Street" into hip jazz instrumentals. Now also a radio host, Ramsey Lewis told us he made his own brand of jazz by blending the blues he heard on the Chicago streets with gospel music from home.

Ramsey Lewis: Well let’s see early influences would have to start with my dad because he was a choir director at our church, but I started studying classical piano when I was four so I guess my earlier influences would be Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and spirituals.

Nick Spitzer: At what point do you hear or have a vision of yourself as somebody that could really do something with that piano with all those lessons behind you and all the good church music that you’re also hearing?

RL: When I was fifteen years old, one of our other church musicians–he was in college at the time–invited me to play with their jazz band, a dance band as it were. And that’s when I found out that although I could play Bach and Mozart pretty well, and I could play “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” I could not play the latest Charlie Parker tune or the standards of the day. But fortunately Wallace Burton, who was the leader of the band, he set about to giving me the things that I should study to learn this great music of jazz.

NS: Now when you say jazz, is there blues filtering through some of this in the pop music, or do you hear any of the blues? I certainly think of Chicago as a blues town.

RL: Yeah, my parents being very, very religious, we didn’t have a lot of blues. I mean it was a while before dad would even let us bring in Louis Jordan. But don’t forget now, gospel music and blues are so close, but you have a strong point there. Living in Chicago, just living in the city and going up and down the radio dial or sometimes even walking through our neighborhood, the blues was there.

NS: It doesn’t sound like your move to jazz and your involvement with all these great players, listening to them was any kind of renegade act, it sounds like it’s something that just flowed naturally for you.

RL: Yeah things just sort of moved along for me. The dance band eventually broke up and the trio was left, and Eldee Young, Redd Holt and I, we never said, “Okay we’re gonna be a trio, and we’re gonna go to New York, and we’re gonna do great things and see our name in lights,” we just sort of figured well let’s play around Chicago on weekends and have some fun because we all were either still in school and/or working at the same time, and somebody heard the trio playing. A disc jockey named Daddy-O Daylie came in to hear us, and he said, “Geez, you guys have a record out?” “No we do not.” He says, “Well if you had one I sure would play it on our show.” He was a huge disc jockey here in Chicago. And we were like kind of, “Yeah, oh sure, right, right, okay.” He says, “No let me see what I can do.” Well he came back, and he says, “I think I have an audition for you guys.” “Really?” “Yeah, show up on the corner of 47th and Cottage Grove, it’s a greeting card shop, but the guy also owns a record company, and you’ll meet us in the shipping department in the back, and they’ll have a piano back there. Bring your drums and bass, and play a few tunes.” Leonard Chess wasn’t there. Phil Chess, his brother, was there. And he kind of scratched his head, he was smoking a pipe, and he wasn’t quite sure so he called Sonny out of the shipping department, and said “Sonny come listen to this, tell me what you think.” And Sonny said “Yeah they’re pretty good.” Phil Chess says, “Let me think about it,” and maybe a week or so later, Daddy-O Daylie called us and said, “Well they want to sign you up.” And I’d say within a year, we had our first album on the street.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at