The Ramsey Lewis trio always included a light song in their repertoire that could hook a crowd of largely non-jazz listeners, including a jazz version of the operatic “Carmen” and the bluesy “Blues for the Night Owl”. While these garnered some airplay and made the R&B charts, the breakthrough was a recording of Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” recorded live at The Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C. and released on the The ‘In’ Crowd album. Between 1964 and 1976 Lewis placed 19 singles on the pop charts utilizing this style that he referred to as “jazz, R&B, pop and gospel all rolled into one”. The trio was awarded a Grammy for Best Instrumental Recording of 1965. Other hits in the same vein included “Since I Fell for You”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Something You Got”, “Hang on Sloopy”, and “High Heel Sneakers”. All of these songs utilize simple elements: well-worn blues riffs, a strong backbeat, plagal cadences, a gospel church-meeting or party atmosphere (provided by club audiences who clap and at times even sing along with the performance), and familiar tunes. Harmonic sophistication and technical wizardry were not the point of these performances, as Lewis himself pointed out: “The most intricate chord in the whole thing, I think, is a seventh” he told Downbeat.
As so often happens, the sudden success of the trio brought about dissention, and the group was unable to stay together, with “High Heel Sneakers” being their last chart success together. Lewis knew he had something, though, and he formed a new trio with bassist Cleveland Eaton and Maurice White, who went on to found funk/rock group Earth, Wind, and Fire, on drums. The new group was able to repeat the previous trio’s success with recordings of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and the gospel standard “Wade in the Water”. The album also featured soul numbers like Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “Tobacco Road”.
This collection in the never-ending Millenium Collection features all of Lewis’ ’60s hits, plus several tunes recorded with the trio before they hit it big with “The ‘In’ Crowd”, such as “Sometime I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, featured on the group’s excellent 1958 Down to Earth album, 1963’s “Look-A-Here”, “Blues for the Night Owl”, and “Something You Got”, the precursors to “‘In’ Crowd”. There is also an orchestral arrangement of John Lennon’s haunting “Julia” from a 1968 recording Mother Nature’s Son, his last for Chicago’s Chess label before he moved to Columbia.
Lewis continued to move in a pop, soul, and funk direction with his music, creating some of the more interesting funk/fusion albums of the early 1970s, Funky Serenity and Sun Goddess, which again featured the work of Maurice White along with his brother Verdine. Ramsey’s has recently done some gospel work with a full chorus and his 1999 album Appassionata brought him back to a trio format and incorporated all the elements and styles he’s worked with over the years quite successfully. Dizzy Gillespie once commented that Lewis was, in fact, playing fusion music way ahead of the electronic experiments that the word conjures in most of our minds, and I don’t think Gillespie was too far off.