A fixture in the jazz world since the mid-1950s, Ramsey Lewis throughout his career has balanced melodic straightahead jazz with pop-oriented music, creating an accessible and impressive body of work. Born in 1935 in Chicago, he began on the piano when he was 4. At 15, he became a member of a jazz septet, the Cleffs, a group that included bassist Eldee Young and drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt. In 1956 with Young and Holt, the Ramsey Lewis Trio recorded their first album. Recording regularly with Argo/Cadet from 1958, the Ramsey Lewis Trio in their early days mostly played bop-oriented jazz that was swinging, soulful and melodic. Lewis also recorded albums with Max Roach and Lem Winchester in 1958. A popular attraction in Chicago, the Ramsey Lewis Trio hit paydirt in 1965 with their albums The In Crowd and Hang On, having hit singles with “The In Crowd,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.” From that point on, Lewis concentrated more on pop material.
In 1966 his sidemen left to form the briefly popular Young-Holt Unlimited; they were replaced by bassist Cleveland Eaton and drummer Maurice White (later the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire). By the early 1970s, Lewis was playing electric piano more than acoustic and his albums tended to be orchestral and tightly produced, including the hit Sun Goddess. By the latter part of the decade, Lewis was mostly heard on acoustic piano again, often utilizing an additional keyboardist. While the hits stopped in the 1980s, Ramsey Lewis has retained his popularity. He has been active on radio (WNUA), is artistic director of Jazz at Ravinia, and had success during his one season of hosting The Legends of Jazz, a groundbreaking if short-lived PBS television series. His playing has gotten stronger through the years and Ramsey Lewis, whether playing his hits, a stirring medley of gospel melodies, displaying his roots in classical music or digging into the blues, is still one of the giants.