Ramsey Lewis, who has died aged 87, was an American composer and pianist best known for his trio’s blend of jazz and pop in hits such as The In Crowd, Wade in the Water and Hang on Sloopy, each of which sold more than a million copies, helping him to earn three Grammy awards; the trio’s 1968 collection of covers from the Beatles’ “White Album”, Mother Nature’s Son, reached No 4 in the US Billboard jazz charts.
Lewis, whose music-making was described as a blend of cocktail-smooth and funky, made more than 80 albums. He also appeared with stars such as Aretha Franklin and Tony Bennett, and performed at the 1995 state dinner that President Clinton hosted for President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil.
Hard-nosed jazz fans might have shrugged him off as a pop-jazz quisling who spent much of his time on gospel-powered covers and catchy funk anthems. Yet he gracefully drew on all manner of influences, interweaving jazz, classical and pop with a sureness of touch that defied classification.
Speaking in 2011, Lewis described his approach to composing and performing. “Life is a solo, and it continues,” he said. “I just know that when I put my hands on the piano it’s going to flow.”
Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis was born in Chicago on May 27 1935, the son of Ramsey Lewis Snr, a maintenance man who introduced his son to the music of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, and his wife Pauline, a cleaner. He had an older sister, Lucille, who was taken to piano lessons while he was left playing with toy soldiers on the living room floor until he insisted on being included.
By the age of nine he was accompanying the gospel chorus at the local church. Yet he was drawn to classical music, recalling being “flabbergasted” after hearing a rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while in Wells High School. “By the time I was 13 years old, I figured that I would tour the world playing classical music in all the orchestral halls,” he recalled.
With race and class stacked against him, Lewis was instead invited at age 15 to join the Clefs, a local jazz band. His mother feared this would mess up his classical technique and asked his piano teacher, Dorothy Mendelsohn, to intervene. “She said to my mother: ‘There are not many opportunities for an African-American musician to play classical music, and I think little Ramsey should take every opportunity he can’.”
He studied at Chicago Musical College and later at DePaul University in the city, played gigs at weekends and worked part-time at Hudson Ross, a downtown record shop. During lunch breaks he took LPs into the booths to listen to the latest sounds, recalling his fascination with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
The Korean War meant the break-up of the Clefs. Lewis was spared the draft, as were the band’s drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt and bassist Eldee Young. They re-emerged as the bluesy, gospel-tinged Ramsey Lewis Trio and were picked up by the Chess label.
Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-men of Swing (1956), described as “a cross between John Lewis [of the Modern Jazz Quartet] and Oscar Peterson”, put them on the cultural map and was followed by Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-men of Jazz (1957). In 1965 they had a chart hit with the irresistibly swaying rhythms of The In Crowd, the title track of their Grammy-winning album.
By then they were playing jazz every night all over Chicago, though by the end of 1965 Holt and Young had left amid some acrimony. Lewis replaced them with the bassist Cleveland Eaton and the drummer Maurice White, who later founded the R&B band Earth, Wind and Fire. White produced Lewis’s 1974 crossover album Sun Goddess, broadening his appeal yet further.
Although the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s recordings received widespread coverage in the British press, their first major tour of this country was not until 1973, with a date at the Royal Festival Hall in London. His subsequent visits were rare though much-anticipated events, including a sold-out appearance at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho in 2006.
For 25 years Lewis was artistic director of Jazz at Ravinia, part of the Ravinia Festival, for which he composed Proclamation of Hope for the bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 2009, and To Know Her, a full score for the Joffrey Ballet. He also presented the television series Legends of Jazz, featuring performances by Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea and Tony Bennett. In 2015 he returned to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose rehearsals he had watched as a schoolboy, for the premiere of his Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra.
Lewis, who received five honorary doctorates and continued to attend classical concerts, recently completed his memoir, Gentleman of Jazz, due out next year.
He is survived by his wife Janet (née Tamillow) and by two daughters and three sons; two sons predeceased him.
Ramsey Lewis, born May 27 1935, died September 12 2022