Jazz great Ramsey Lewis dies peacefully in Chicago at age 87

Jazz great Ramsey Lewis dies peacefully in Chicago at age 87


Ramsey Lewis, the jazz piano great known for “The ‘In’ Crowd,” “Hang on Sloopy” and numerous other works, died peacefully on Monday at home in Chicago at age 87.

Lewis died in his sleep, son Bobby Lewis said.

“He was just at peace,” Bobby Lewis said. “Most people say when they met dad that he was a class act. He was that way even through his last breath.”

Lewis grew up in the projects of Chicago and started playing when he was 4. He would go on to win three Grammys, seven gold records and untold accolades.

Over a 60-year career, he became one of the country’s premier jazz musicians, starting with the 1956 “Ramsey Lewis and the Gentlemen of Swing,” with the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

“The ‘In’ Crowd” helped Lewis cross over from jazz to pop stardom, though he also performed with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Al Jarreau and Pat Metheney.

He held more than 80 album credits, toured the world and performed for a 1995 state dinner President Bill Clinton hosted for President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil.

Besides the crossover songs, Lewis brought jazz to the mainstream in other ways, hosting radio shows throughout the 1990s and in 2000. There was “The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show” on WNUA-FM and “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis,” which he hosted weekly in 2007 on public television stations nationwide.

That show, featuring jazz greats and rising stars alike, marked the first time jazz had been featured weekly on network television in four decades, the show’s creators said at the time.

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Ramsey E. Lewis Jr. was born in Chicago on May 27, 1935, according to a statement on his official Facebook page. His father was the choir director at his church, and young Ramsey played the piano there.

While still a high school freshman, the saxophonist and pianist Wallace Burton invited him to join his band, the Clefs. When several of the group’s seven members were drafted to serve in the Korean War, Lewis, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt were left behind and formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

A gig at Birdland in New York City three years later led to performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Village Vanguard.

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It was 1965 when his crossover smash “The ‘In’ Crowd,” written by Dobie Gray, brought its “elegantly funky” mojo to a Grammy win. Two more chart toppers, “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water,” followed.

Besides the Grammys, Lewis was awarded five honorary doctorate degrees and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist, saw “The ‘In’ Crowd” inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and had his personal memorabilia enshrined at the Smithsonian Institution. In 2007 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award.

“Ramsey’s passion for music was truly fueled by the love and dedication of his fans across the globe,” his wife, Jan Lewis, said. “He loved touring and meeting music lovers from so many cultures and walks of life. It was our family’s great pleasure to share Ramsey in this special way with all those who admired his God-given talents. We are forever grateful for your support.”

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Besides Jan Lewis, the musician is survived by five children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Lewis has more work coming. In November, the album “The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One,” will be issued, drawn from livestreamed performances he gave during the pandemic lockdown in 2020. In addition, his recently completed memoir, “Gentleman of Jazz,” is due out next year.

“Life is a solo, and it continues,” Lewis said in 2011. “I just know that when I put my hands on the piano, it’s going to flow.”

With News Wire Services

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