Reaching For New Plateaux

By David Nathan

September 1976 

With 45 albums, 3 Grammy awards and countless other tributes behind him, Ramsey’s searching for new fields to conquer. It’s his constant activity which motivates his continued creativity.

It’s incredible to think that the same Ramsey Lewis who gave the world his own highly infectious version of “Wade In The Water” back in the early Sixties is still coming out with new and exciting music that is capturing a whole new generation of fans who Ramsey acknowledges “had only heard of me by name through their father or older brothers”.  That’s a tribute and testament to the man’s obvious musical talents. And those talents have been in evidence ever since Ramsey first realised that his vocation lay in music.  “I guess I first got the bug when I was around 13 or 14. I wanted to travel — as a concert pianist. But my music teacher advised that I just might not be able to make a living at it! Back then, with the exception of Marian Anderson, no black performer was making it in the classical field. So when I was 15, a local band in Chicago asked me if I’d play piano for them. I did — and the rest I guess is history!”

Ramsey’s history spans the late fifties, the sixties and now the seventies and includes some forty-five albums (seven of which were achieved gold status), three Grammy Awards and countless other tributes to the artistic ability of the Chicago-born musician.  Right now, Mr. Lewis is looking up to the next plateau in his career. “I feel very good about my career right now. No artist can hope to sustain constant uphill growth. It’s a question of mountains, valleys and plateaux. Right now, I’ve left one plateau and I’m not quite sure where I’m going from here though I do feel a surge of energy, a building of momentum.  Furthermore, I can look down the line and see what’s gone down and I have some idea of what’s ahead. Albums, tours — everything. And constant activity motivates creativity. You feel the wheel of energy begin to turn.”

Ramsey agrees that over the last couple of years, he’s experienced a definite increase in his fan following. “That had much to do with me joining CBS in 1972. Before that, I felt I was on a sinking ship with Chess. As soon as I got with CBS, I felt my career was propelled to another level.  I have to confess that I had my doubts as to what might happen because there is always that fear of getting lost at a company as big as CBS. You always fear becoming just another digit. But I’ve found that isn’t the case: the company’s success comes because of the departmental situation that exists.  You always have access to the people you need. Also, the company feels that it is no bigger than its artists and that’s very important.”

There is no doubt that the assistance of Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire helped get Ramsey over to a whole new generation of people. “That all goes back to the early sixties when I had a drummer working with me. Around 1969, he told me that he wanted to leave and pursue some of the ideas he’d had but we agreed that we’d still stay in contact. So, we’d speak on the phone every few months and we promised that someday, we’d do something together again.  Well, it was around the Fall of ’74 and I was in the studios cutting a new album. We’d finished 90% of it and Maurice called. He told me he had some time and a couple of tunes so we got together in Chicago and the result was “Sun Goddess”. I knew that it would be something to identify with — because Maurice knew me. And it has certainly served as a calling card, you might say.  I feel that a lot of young people said ‘if Earth, Wind & Fire like this guy, he must have something to say.”

What pleases Ramsey most is that he hasn’t found it necessary “to dilute, bend or compromise. Fresh ideas have come from having new audiences too. If you can communicate without compromise, you can say what you want. The only time I’ve ever recorded anything I didn’t particularly want to do was in the mid-Sixties when we did the “Goin’ Latin” album. I was out on the road and the Chess people called me asking for a new album. Well, “Wade In The Water” was still hot so I told them I wasn’t ready. But they persuaded me — they had all the arrangements ready, the songs — they asked me to come check them out. So we did it — and it sold over 300,000 so it couldn’t have been that bad.”

To reach the level he’s at now, Ramsey agrees that he’s spent a good deal of time on the road. He estimates that he’s probably spent some 50%-60% out there during his entire career. “Yes, I hate touring! But this time, it’s so much better. Working with Earth, Wind & Fire, so many of the hassles are gone. We have our own plane — so there are none of the problems at the airport, everything moves so smoothly. I’ll be honest and say that if it were possible to wheel myself into the next concert rather than go through all the travelling, changing hotels etc., I’d love it!  But I do enjoy performing very much. After all, it builds your following, helps record sales and the combination of good touring with good product ensures a degree of success.  Right now, we’re in the midst of a 100-date tour which started at the end of June and will finish in December. It’s better to do it this way than to go out twice a year and cover ten major cities because you cover so many people the way we’re doing it.”

Ramsey states that things, of course, have improved a great deal over the years. “In the early days, you’d do what we call 40-20. That was six shows a night, 40 minutes long for each show, with a 20 minute break. The bigger you get, of course, the less you have to do in terms of the number of shows. Now, we can pack the same amount of energy into one that you’d have put into six before.”

Constant performing itself can be very demanding but Mr. Lewis says the secret is “to stay in good physical shape. The creative process demands that your body be taken care of. You may be able to go a day or two missing meals or eating the wrong food and not getting enough sleep but then you’ve got to do what’s needed.”  And although Ramsey must have played in front of countless thousands over the years he confesses: “I’m never completely satisfied. Occasionally, I may feel bad about a show. Sure, I feel gratified when people give standing ovations — when we get over. But every night I tear the show apart afterwards because we’re constantly looking for ways to keep it all fresh.  A show has to be a combination of two parts: the part you do for the people and the part you do for yourself. Like on “Sun Goddess”: we play the intro and melody the same way because people are familiar with it. But the ‘meat’ of the song is different every time. Sometimes, you go out on a limb to see what will happen.”

Ramsey says he’s very happy with the current line-up he’s working with. “I really think it’s the best band I’ve ever had. We’ve been together for three months now and I’d like to think we’ll be together for a long time to come.  Even our rehearsals are great — there are positive vibes all the time.”

Spending so much time on the road, Ramsey explains that he gets a chance to put together his albums “by taking notes in hotels, airplanes, everywhere. Then, after three months, I take all those scraps of paper and put them all together. Also, before a concert, I’ll get together with the guys and put down on tape any ideas I may have. It’s impossible to capture everything since you may get an idea whilst just walking down the street — so you’re bound to lose something. But I approach each album with a feeling rather than a concept because an album should leave the listener with that — a feeling. Right now, I have no idea what the next one will be.  We won’t be going back into the studios until the end of the year, beginning of next — after we finish touring.”

Ramsey is in no doubt that what he’s striving for is the freedom to have the time he needs to create. “I’ll know when I’ve reached that level when I can see it in my bank account,” he smiles. “But you have to work to get to that particular level.  Right now, I couldn’t afford to take two years off like someone like Neil Diamond. And then again, we all have individual needs. Sure, I’d like the time to be alone — away from the phones, newspapers, with just some cheese and wine in a cottage away from it all. But I might only want that for a day or a week or a month.  It’s the freedom of knowing you can take that time. I want to get more into philosophy, history, sciences, the arts. Reading and meditating — I want to get more in tune with nature. And all of those things you can accomplish when you reach that certain level.”

Meanwhile, he sees no end to his life as a musician. “I see myself playing till I die — and thereafter! I’d like to get to that point of being able to take six weeks to do seminars and lectures on college campuses — it would be interesting to exchange ideas with young people. But that will come later.  I believe in living life to the full and I want to keep on playing as long as I live. You see, instrumentalists have a longer creative life span than, say, a vocalist. After all, you’re not depending on one physical organ. A singer’s instrument wears out — as long as a musician keeps his body in shape, it won’t.”

Ramsey seems very happy about the way his career is on a continuing upward path and all the indications are that he’s going to be around for a long time to come.  As a final thought, we couldn’t resist asking him about the somewhat bizarre cover for his latest CBS album, “Salongo”: “The original intention was that they just painted one red line down my face. Then they said, let’s try it — painting my whole face. When I first looked in the mirror, it was a definite no. When I saw the photo proofs, it was still a no. When I first saw the finished art, it was still a no.  Then it became a maybe so! Because the marketing people and everyone explained how it would attract attention and how the sleeve could be used for posters etc. So it’s still a maybe so for me, anyway!”

©, 2022, all rights reserved