During the mid-1960s, the Ramsey Lewis Trio offered the uninitiated an enticing gateway into the jazz idiom. Thanks to their bedrock rhythmic thrust, the trio’s jaunty instrumental hits granted the pop airwaves an instantly hipper sensibility when nestled between chart-toppers by the Beatles and the Supremes. Lewis, bassist Eldee Young, and drummer Isaac "Redd" Holt had the jazz credentials to refute any accusations of commercialism from jazz purists. They had been recording prolifically for Chess Records’ Argo subsidiary for nearly a decade before becoming a national phenomenon in 1965. After that, r&b and rock covers began to dominate their albums — yet Lewis never misplaced his jazz instincts.
Born in Chicago on May 27, 1935, Lewis studied hard at Chicago Musical College. But his interests weren’t limited to the classics; in 1950, he joined the Cleffs, a local dance septet. The band’s leader, Wallace Burton, offered the teenage pianist an alternative education, turning him on to jazz heavyweights Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, John Lewis, and Charlie Parker. Manning the Cleffs’ rhythm section were Young and Holt. The young threesome eventually branched off on their own, developing an uncanny interplay amid Young’s supple underpinnings and Holt’s propulsive backbeat. Chicago jazz deejay Daddy-O Daylie arranged a Chess audition, and in 1956 the trio cut their first LP for Argo.
Apart from a 1959 Mercury album, the Ramsey Lewis Trio remained a Chess institution until 1971. Their early repertoire blended gospel, blues, folk, and classical elements into a distinctive jazz approach. The trio’s funky version of New Orleanian Chris Kenner’s "Something You Got" propelled them onto the pop charts for the first time in 1964.
In search of a similar song for their next album, they were helped by a coffee shop waitress who suggested Dobie Gray’s "The ‘In’ Crowd". "The ‘In’ Crowd" was an unexpected pop smash for the trio during the late summer of ’65, and "Hang On Sloopy" — a tasty takeoff on the McCoys hit caught at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California — followed suit. But stardom brought jealousy as an unpleasant companion.
"Success spoiled the trio," says Lewis. "By Christmas of ’65, we were not buddies anymore." Eldee and Redd split to form Young–Holt Unlimited, while Ramsey recruited bassist Cleveland Eaton and Chess house drummer Maurice White (who would go on to found Earth, Wind & Fire) as his new cohorts.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s massive, richly varied Argo/Cadet catalog resonates with a rootsy authority that’s totally accessible yet true to the jazz tradition. And yes, a great deal of it is brazenly fun.
Excerpted from: Ramsey Lewis’s Finest Hour
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