Ramsey Lewis: Don’t It Feel Good
By John Abbey
With the ever growing interest in jazz, it’s interesting to note that in most instances, the names who are bringing about the revival are relatively new to the scene. However, a handful of the stalwarts have been able to survive the jazz famine of the late 60’s, at which time most jazz musicians either faded away or turned their hand to other forms of music. Keyboard genius Ramsey Lewis, though, is one of that illustrious handful – in fact, he has emerged to be bigger today than at any stage in his career. At this precise moment, his newest Columbia album has only just been toppled from the top rung in the American jazz charts – and it took Grover Washington Jr. to do it!
No doubt, Ramsey will forgive me for mentioning that one of the best breaks that he has enjoyed during this revival came via Maurice White,the extremely talented quiet genius who makes Earth Wind & Fire tick. But, whilst most people would think that Ramsey has a debt now to Maurice, it is Maurice who is quick to point out that he is merely repaying a long standing debt that goes back almost a decade to when Ramsey was an artist with Chess Records and Maurice was employed in the studio as odd-job man and drummer when required. “In fact, Maurice was my drummer for four years between 1965 and 1969,” Ramsey states. “He’d always been close to us from the studio time and he was always asking questions about the business. After about three and three quarter years, he told me he would be going out on his own and he took the next few months to get the type of replacement that he felt I should have. He’s that type of guy – methodical and one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the privilege to get to know. He always said that we’d work together one day again and we always stayed in touch with each other. When Earth Wind & Fire started to happen, I felt kind of proud for him because he worked so hard and so patiently for it to happen. Then one day he called me – I was working in Washington at the time and he told me he had two songs that he felt would be perfect for me. I laughed back that it was something of a coincidence because I had five songs finished and needed two more to finish off my album! They were ‘Hot Dawgit’ and ‘Sun Goddess’ but it wasn’t called that at first – at the very beginning it didn’t have a name at all but Maurice suggested ‘God Of Suns’, which somehow sounded a little clumsy so we dubbed it ‘Sun Goddess’. Directly after the album, I did twelve concerts with Earth Wind & Fire and they were some of the best shows I have ever done – I guess we had so much in common, it all came naturally.”
Actually, Ramsey has just completed twenty years in the entertainment industry. “I actually owe my beginning to a guy named Daddy O’Daly, who was a big jazz DJ in Chicago at that time,” the softly spoken gentleman explains. “He had heard our little show at a dive in Chicago and it was he who got us a contract with Leonard Chess. At that time, we called ourselves Ramsey Lewis and the Gentlemen of Jazz. But it was Daddy who taught us the do’s and don’ts of the business and to him I owe my greatest debt.”
Ramsey Lewis spent a decade and a half with Chess and it was with the family owned company that he became perhaps the most successful jazz artist of the 60’s. Today, people talk about the discos but few realise how big and prominent apart was played by Ramsey – back in the 60’s and long before the disco fad became fashionable. It was in 1965 that he exploded nationally with a jazz instrumental version of ‘The In Crowd’, a song that had been a hit in the early months of that same year for Dobie Gray. “At the time, I felt there was nothing wrong with incorporating Black church music with straight pop,” he now smiles. “The jazz purists put me down – naturally! But who is to say what’s good and what’s bad. They all said that I couldn’t take Rock and give it a jazz feel. But I just kept on and followed my creative instinct and it paid off with ‘In Crowd’, then ‘Hang On Sloopy’, ‘Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Wade In The Water’, which was the biggest of all.”
As already stated, jazz fell into the doldrums in the latter part of the 60’s and when the whole Chess empire changed, Ramsey switched over to Columbia Records. “At the time, I admit I was afraid to go with CBS,” he confesses today. “They were like the General Motors of the record business and I didn’t want to become just a number – you know, Like: ‘Lewis, Ramsey a No.288’! That thought terrified me because I’d always been part of the small and intimate family thing at Chess. I had always spoken to Leonard and Phil Chess on first name terms and it was all kind of friendly and funky, you know. But I knew that it couldn’t be that way at Columbia because they were big, big, big! And where Chess had to work to a small budget, they had a seemingly unlimited amount of money to spend – if they wanted. They gave big budgets for recording and promotion and I was pleasantly surprised that they have never tried to exert any kind of pressure on me. Yet, despite the fact that it wasn’t until the latter part of 1974 that I started to make any money for them, they always stood by me and believed in me. That’s why I’m doubly pleased for them that now things are going so well.”
The jazz revival of the mid-70’s is obviously a subject dear to Ramsey’s heart. “It had to happen,” Ramsey immediately stresses. “In the 60’s, it all got too intellectual and musicians got under that Miles Davis spell. Now Miles is a genius and can get away with it – where most musicians can’t and they sink into a web of their own creation and they couldn’t escape. My theory was always this – how can I say what I want to say and get people to listen, too. That’s how those disco hits came in the mid-60’s – just by asking that same question. But too many musicians started to forget that their audience didn’t consist of musicians and that the public just wants to be entertained. An audience is made up of secretaries or truck drivers so what do they know about complicated musical licks. And, even more important, they don’t want to know! They just want to feel their music and in that period, the audiences couldn’t feel – let alone understand! – what was happening so they lost interest. Herbie Hancock was one of the first to realise this and he played a major part in bringing jazz back from the dead – because it did die, a most horrible death. So, Herbie got into things like ‘Chameleon’ – a mixture of jazz riffs and rock rhythms and that did the trick. And he played it simply. Like Miles Davis once said: ‘It’s not how many notes you play, it’s how you play them.’ Now you’ve got guys like Hubert Laws taking a Stravinsky and improvising it – that’s how come people are turning to jazz again.”
Due to the runaway success of Ramsey’s Don’t Feel Good album, he had to postpone his proposed British trip this year but is hoping to make it in the early part of the new year. Whereas much of his earlier success involved the Ramsey Lewis Trio – consisting of Red Holt, Eldee Young and Ramsey – he currently carried a five piece band that is now supplemented by three further vocalists. The basic quintet – used throughout the Don’t It Feel Good LP – is made up of Morris Jennings, drums; Byron Gregory, guitar: Derf Reklaw Raheem, flute and percussion; Bernard Reid, bass (though Tiaz Palmer plays bass on the LP); Paul Serrano, horns; and Ramsey Lewis, all keyboards. Since the Don’t It Feel Good album has carried Ramsey into the front line of Funk-Jazz musicians, it’s odds-on that he would fare well enough on any proposed concert tour – now all we have to do is wait!
© John Abbey, 1975/SoulMusic.com, 2022
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