(September 15, 2022). It’s quite poignant that, in a month that symbolizes a lot of change and new beginnings, and a month where we annually celebrate one of the greatest R&B bands ever, we also say goodbye to one of music’s greatest jazz icons—an icon whose generosity may have helped found that great R&B band more than 50 years ago.
The jazz icon—Ramsey Lewis— died at his home in Chicago on Monday, September 12, 2022. He was 87.
As one of the Windy City’s greatest native sons and music’s most successful jazz pianists, Lewis recorded more than 80 albums, with five of them being certified gold. Along the way, he recorded with many famous fellow musicians and won three Grammys.
So talented and popular was Lewis that his records often resided in the upper reaches of the national charts with rock and soul greats at a time when jazz was no longer considered mainstream and the British Music Invasion had taken over America. His biggest crossover hit, 1965’s “The ‘In’ Crowd,” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart (prevented from No. 1 only by The Godfather James Brown’s topper “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”).
On the pop side, “The ‘In’ Crowd” peaked at No. 5 nationally, but fared better in large cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis where it ranked No. 1, and in Lewis’s native Chicago, where it knocked The Beatles “Help” from the top locally.
“The ‘In’ Crowd” was displaced from No. 1 in the Windy City by the McCoys “Hang On Sloopy,” a song Lewis ironically covered and released as his own next single (becoming his second-biggest pop hit nationally that same year).
But it was Lewis’ connection to one up-and-coming drummer in particular that may have led to the founding of one of the most venerable bands in R&B (and rock and roll) history: the legendary group Earth, Wind & Fire, whose founder—the late Maurice White—performed as one of the two supporting members in the Ramsey Lewis Trio for several of that jazz band’s albums from 1966 to 1969.
White, along with bassist Cleveland Eaton, replaced original Ramsey Lewis Trio musicians Isaac Holt and Eldee Young (who left in 1966 to form the group Young-Holt Unlimited), and it was with White and Eaton that Lewis recorded such classics as “Wade In The Water” (No. 3 Soul; No. 16 pop in 1966) and the Grammy Award-winning track “Hold It Right There,” as well as seven of the band’s studio albums, the last two of which—Maiden Voyage and Mother Nature’s Son—were produced/arranged by future prominent EWF fixture, the late Charles Stepney.
Prior to linking up with Lewis officially, White played as a session drummer on many records for the Chess label and particularly its jazz adjunct label Argo (which changed its name to Cadet in 1965 as “The ‘In’ Crowd” was still charting). At the time, Cadet and its parent Chess boasted such names as Etta James, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, the Impressions, Buddy Guy and, of course, the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
But White wanted to pursue his own dreams and parted with the Ramsey Lewis Trio amicably in 1969. After initially writing commercial jingles for companies in the Chicago area, White left for Los Angeles and, with Lewis’ blessing, formed his own group The Salty Peppers, which eventually became Earth, Wind & Fire.
Named for the three elements (earth, “air” and fire) of White’s astrological sign—Sagittarius—Earth, Wind & Fire underwent a number of roster changes before settling on the lineup that would change the face of R&B/soul/pop crossover music in the 1970s and become the biggest-selling Black group of that decade, releasing album after classic album, including Head To The Sky, That’s The Way of The World, Spirit, All ‘n’ All, and I Am, among others.
One of White’s greatest trademarks was an instrument he discovered in a Chicago drum store while still with The Ramsey Lewis Trio: the kalimba or African thumb piano.
It was with the Ramsey Lewis Trio that White learned to play and perfect the kalimba, and it was under Lewis’ encouragement that Maurice would perform intricate solo parts with the exotic instrument, eventually coming from behind his drum kit during shows and taking center stage with the hand-held kalimba in tow.
Ramsey Lewis ultimately replaced White after his departure but maintained a lifelong friendship with the EWF leader while ultimately dropping the “trio” altogether and billing himself as a solo artist. Lewis continued to release album after album throughout the 1970s—often two or three a year— before reconnecting with White professionally in 1974 for what would become a landmark era for both men.
With Earth Wind & Fire still in its ascendency after having recorded the group’s first No. 1 soul chart album in 1974’s Open Our Eyes, Lewis, who was now also signed to Columbia Records (along with EWF), linked up with White and three other key members of his band—guitarist brother Verdine White, guitarist Johnny Graham, and fellow lead singer Phillip Bailey—and created what would become Lewis’ second-most successful album (after ‘65’s The In Crowd): Sun Goddess.
Two singles from Sun Goddess charted nationally in ‘75: “Hot Dawgit” and the title track, both with Earth, Wind & Fire given label credit and both featuring the four EWF members playing instruments or singing.
Around the same time, EWF recorded and released its first landmark album, That’s The Way of the World, which shared chart space with Sun Goddess through the majority of 1975, with both albums reaching No. 1 on the soul chart (and World becoming EWF’s first No. 1 album on the pop list as well).
The Sun Goddess album was a Chicago reunion in other ways as well. It included former Ramsey Lewis Trio bassist Cleveland Eaton as well as Charles Stepney, who contributed guitar and keyboards.
Stepney was also producer of EWF’s That’s the Way of the World album, and would co-produce both acts’ next two followups in 1975-76: Lewis’ Don’t It Feel Good and Salongo; and EWF’s Gratitude andSpirit. Sadly, Stepney died of a heart attack while producing Salongo and Spirit, with the latter album by EWF being dedicated to the master producer.
Lewis’ connections to EWF would continue beyond 1976, as he continued to record albums under the production arm of Maurice White and fellow EWF member Larry Dunn, with instrumental contributions from those two plus fellow members Al McKay, Fred White and Phillip Bailey. By this time, in a coming-full-circle situation, Lewis was signed to White’s Kalimba Productions along with Columbia label mates like Deniece Williams and the Emotions.
While Lewis continued these ties with members of the legendary group whose beginnings he helped facilitate through his mentorship of Maurice White in the 1960s, often incorporating EWF’s syncopated, mid-‘70s funk/R&B style into his own recordings, the Chicago great kept his foot firmly planted in the improvisational style that was and remains jazz music’s trademark.
Earth, Wind & Fire went on to become one of the most celebrated bands in pop and R&B history. Each year, their iconic 1978 single “September” marks the beginning of autumn and is unofficially celebrated as “Earth, Wind & Fire Day” around the country. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame ten years later.
Lewis, meanwhile, went on to found the Ramsey Lewis Foundation in 2005. That organization promoted badly needed musical instrument education to children in the Chicago area. He also hosted television and radio programs showcasing jazz talks and performances by notable fellow artists, including Lonnie Smith, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and Tony Bennett. He ultimately received an honorary doctorate from Loyola University Chicago in 2008.
For all these things and more, Lewis deserves to be celebrated as one of the greatest jazz pianists to ever grace an American recording studio.
But he also should be remembered as a generous man without whom the world might not have been graced with this blogger’s favorite band and one of the greatest recording acts of all time: Earth, Wind & Fire.
Check out this tribute Ramsey gave to the late EWF leader after playing piano and speaking at Maurice White’s funeral in 2016.
R.I.P. Ramsey Emanuel Lewis, Jr. (May 27, 1935 – September 12, 2022).
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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