Rest in peace, Ramsey Lewis: “Wade In the Water” (1966)

Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, perhaps best known for his take on Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd,” passed away at his home in Chicago today. He was 87.

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis was born in Chicago and started his musical career at approximately four years old by taking piano lessons in his neighborhood near Cabrini Green. The lessons expanded to playing the organ in church on Sundays, and it was clear that Lewis had talent. From Wells High School Lewis went on to the Chicago Music College Preparatory school to study the classics.

But it was jazz that brought Lewis’ music into millions of homes. In all Ramsey Lewis, both solo and with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, recorded some eighty albums. The Ramsey Lewis Trio emerged from a band called the Clefs, formed with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt. The mid-Sixties were good for the Trio, striking gold in 1965 with their cover of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd.” A follow-up release covering the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy” also did well. The Trio had a knack for making just about anything they touched sound remarkably cool: to wit, this version of “Summer Breeze” that you will now likely prefer hearing to Seals and Crofts any day.

The Trio went their separate ways: Young and Holt recorded together as Young-Holt Unlimited. (You may be familiar with “Soulful Strut,” or Barbara Acklin’s “Am I The Same Girl” – the same record – which I covered here. But Ramsey didn’t stop. In addition to turning out jazz album after jazz album and claiming five Grammy awards, he also turned to radio – and that’s where I met him.

Ramsey Lewis started on the air in Chicago in 1997 as the host of Smooth Jazz WNUA’s morning show. The program featured plenty of music – sometimes performed on the spot by Ramsey – and comfortable conversation, and it always did well in the ratings. During my last stint in Chicago in the early to mid 2000s I was working for then-Clear Channel Radio in their complex on Michigan Avenue. WNUA was among the seven radio stations in the building at the time. Each station had a full-size production room adjacent to its on-air studio, and two other smaller light-duty production rooms to round out the pod. (Yes, that’s 28 studios in all.) Each station, that was, except ours. When I joined WRLL in 2003 we were the last station in the building, and they needed to sort of shoehorn us in what was already there. Our on-air studio ended up across the building from where my production room was to be, and my production room was to be one of the smaller ancillary pods rather than the nice full-size studio. Upon being hired, I asked why we weren’t getting the full-size room nearest our studio. “Because Ramsey’s piano is in it.” Sure enough, what should have been my studio housed a gorgeous Steinway that was used in the mornings by Ramsey Lewis himself. I moved into the small pod and never mentioned it. Truth be told, Ramsey was always one of the nicest, most pleasant people in the building, and I have fewer gold records than he does by a long shot. He deserved the nicest spot we could find for him to work in.

The song that I thought to highlight here comes from an album that lives in my campus office. It’s the title track from the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “Wade in the Water” LP. While this tune hit only #19 on the pop charts, it was a solid #3 on the R&B chart. (And no, that’s not actually Redd Holt hitting the skins on this record. The drumming is done by a young Maurice White, who you’ll hear a lot more of on the 21st night of this month.)

You can hear “Wade in the Water” by clicking here.

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