Ramsey Lewis, a Grammy-winning pianist who had a major crossover pop hit in the 1960s with “The ‘In’ Crowd” and was a central figure in combining jazz with electronic music and other styles, died Sept. 12 at his home in Chicago. He was 87.
The death, of undisclosed causes, was announced on his website.
Beginning in the 1950s, Mr. Lewis recorded more than 75 albums and was one of the most popular jazz-oriented musicians of any era. Trained as a classical pianist and reared in gospel, he had prodigious keyboard skills and threaded various musical influences throughout his performances.
In 1964, he recorded the commercially successful “The Ramsey Lewis Trio Live at the Bohemian Caverns” at a nightclub on Washington’s U Street NW. Returning to D.C. the next year for an encore engagement, Mr. Lewis and his group were at a coffee shop discussing possible tunes for a follow-up album.
“And our waitress asked, ‘What kind of song you looking for?’ ” Mr. Lewis told The Washington Post in 2006. “We said, well, something fun, maybe something danceable. And she said, ‘You all should do “The ‘In’ Crowd” by Dobie Gray.’ ”
The song, written by Billy Page, was a Top 20 hit for Gray, a rhythm-and-blues singer. Mr. Lewis and his trio, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, worked out an instrumental arrangement of the tune.
“We rehearsed it Tuesday and Wednesday, and that Thursday at the Bohemian Caverns was the first night we played it in public,” Mr. Lewis told The Post. “We closed the set with it, and people started really getting into it. We did it again at the next show, and the same thing happened.
“And the rest is history. Is that what they say?”
As Mr. Lewis led the way with his piano, playing a simple but infectious melody while throwing in tantalizing shifts in dynamics, the audience clapped along with the midtempo rhythm.
“I mean if you listen to that record, we did not coerce or ask any of those people to join in,” Mr. Lewis said in a 2006 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. “We started playing that song, and it was dancing in the aisles.”
“The ‘In’ Crowd” became one of the most popular instrumental tunes of the era, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, ranking among songs by the Beatles, the Supremes and the Beach Boys. Mr. Lewis won a Grammy Award for best small group jazz instrumental — the first of three Grammys — and the album sold more than 1 million copies.
Ever since forming his trio and releasing his debut album, “Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Swing,” in 1956, Mr. Lewis had favored an eclectic, even populist approach, not unlike that of pianists Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. He reconfigured pop songs in his own way, mixed in a few jazz standards and R&B tunes, while mixing in introductions and cadenzas with echoes of Bach and Chopin.
“I’ve always had a broad outlook,” he told Down Beat magazine. “If it was good music, I could dig it.”
About a year after the release of “The ‘In’ Crowd,” Mr. Lewis’s trio broke up, and he formed a new group that included drummer Maurice White, who later founded the R&B group Earth, Wind and Fire.
He had several more pop-jazz hits, including the million-selling singles “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water,” both from 1966. With his growing success, however, Mr. Lewis faced a critical backlash from some writers and musicians who thought he was diluting his musical talent to score pop hits with unchallenging material.
“This is a very sensitive area that we’re entering into,” Mr. Lewis told Down Beat. “Jazz as entertainment and jazz as art. … Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s playing was for dancers, but something happened where jazz entertainment came to be looked down upon by musicians.”
In the 1970s, Mr. Lewis turned to electronic keyboards and synthesizers and toured with Earth, Wind and Fire. His 1974 album “Sun Goddess” became a major hit, but with its disco beats, funk accents and emphasis on electronics, it was squarely in the realm of jazz fusion or “contemporary jazz.” Mr. Lewis’s new music was far removed from the simplicity of the understated acoustic trio albums he had recorded in the past. He recorded songs by country artists, the Beatles, Lionel Richie and Janet Jackson, making no apologies for following popular trends.
“I’ve tried to stay true to my goals,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “To explore interesting harmonic progressions and work with melodies that sing.”
Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born May 27, 1935, in Chicago. His father was a maintenance worker who directed a church choir, and his mother cleaned houses.
Mr. Lewis began playing piano at age 4, was performing in church by the time he was 9 and studied classical technique for years at a Chicago conservatory and at DePaul University.
“By the time I was 13 years old,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “I figured that I would tour the world playing classical music.”
Because opportunities for Black classical musicians were limited, Mr. Lewis began to work with jazz musicians before forming his trio and signing with the Chicago-based Chess Records. He later recorded for Columbia, GRP and other labels.
By the 1990s, Mr. Lewis had largely given up his experiments with electronic music and returned to the standard piano and jazz styles of his early years. He was praised for his insightful performances of such standards as “Body and Soul” and for his jazz-inflected recordings of classical tunes on his 1999 album “Appassionata.”
When not on concert tours, Mr. Lewis had a second career as a radio DJ with a daily program in Chicago. He was also the host of a weekly television show on the BET cable network, called at different times “Jazz Central” and “Sound & Style.” His syndicated radio program, “Legends of Jazz,” was adapted for television on PBS in 2006.
In addition to performing and broadcasting, Mr. Lewis wrote music, including a ballet suite, a string quartet and a symphonic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, “Proclamation of Hope” (2009), which drew on African American musical traditions.
Mr. Lewis was 80 when he debuted his Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 2007, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the country’s highest honor for jazz musicians.
His marriage to Geraldine Taylor, with whom he had seven children, ended in divorce. He was predeceased by two sons. Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Janet Tamillow Lewis; five children; 17 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
“All music is folk music,” Mr. Lewis told The Post in 2010, explaining how he composed his musical evocation of Lincoln. “Music comes from the folks and is meant to move the folks and connect with the folks. At 75 years old, I finally categorized my music: It’s music for the folks.”