By Matt Hume, November 8 2017 —
Born in Chicago in 1935, musician, composer and radio personality Ramsey Lewis has won three Grammy Awards and boasts seven gold records. The renowned artist will perform in Calgary on Nov. 17 for “A Night of Chicago Jazz” at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. The Gauntlet spoke with the legend in anticipation of the event.
The Gauntlet: You started playing music at the age of four. What got you into piano so young?
Ramsey Lewis: I’m four-years-old and I’m laying on the floor in the living room shooting marbles or whatever. My sister, [Lucille], she’s seven-years-old at the time. I heard my parents saying “Lucille, you’re going to start playing piano lessons. We want someone in the family to play the piano.” I found that whenever I get to do what she got to do it was pretty good! So I said, “I wanna go! I wanna go! I wanna go!” And they said, “No, no.” They could only afford one child at the time.
They finally said, “Okay, you can go.” The piano teacher was our neighbourhood piano teacher and she was also our church organist and pianist so we both went. After a couple, three lessons, Lucille got to not go because the teacher said, “Well, maybe she can do something else better than this. But little Ramsey! I wanna keep him!” So now I’m stuck, she gets to not go and I have to go and I didn’t know that you had to practise everyday! I thought just once a week is okay! But do I have to do this everyday?
So my parents — my dad especially, he would come home from work and ask my mother — they called me Sonny, “Did Sonny practise today?” And God help me if she said no. But it was good that he was into practising and got me to practise because once I got to be about 12-years-old I loved to practise. Practising was a joy of life! And it continues to this day. Today I’m gonna practise because there’s no good reason not to. It’s just because I want to.
Gauntlet: So did it take that time between four and 12 to get interested or was there a moment where you realized you actually do like doing this?
Lewis: There were a couple moments. At nine-years-old my dad said, “You’re gonna play for the gospel choir.” Sitting in the audience is one thing, but up where the piano was and the singing and the preaching and the organ player and seeing how the music moved people [was another]. I mean, we’re playing and singing these songs and people are being moved. In black churches, some of them — most of them — the preaching and music, they react! And [I thought], “Wow, okay.” I think that had a lot to do with later on in life when I started playing and got my own trio is that you’re not doing anything unless you reach out and touch. Unless the music touches the people in some way that are listening. And not cerebrally — I mean emotionally and whether it’s a happy emotion. But fortunately I’m a positive guy. I always see the glass as half full.
Gauntlet: A lot of people know you for your biggest accolades, whether it be “The In Crowd,” “Sun Goddess” or “Hang On Sloopy” and performances with Earth, Wind & Fire, but what are your personal favourite career highlights?
Oh man. I’m not a guy that hangs on to the past. I’m always in the moment. I can remember the first hit record and I got a phone call in Detroit. We were playing some little joint and the record company called and said, “I think you guys got a hit.” Well, back in those days hits were made by rock and roll and R&B and pop, but jazz? What what what?
I remember when Maurice White [founder of Earth, Wind & Fire] called and said, “I have a song for you.” The first song he said was gonna be bigger than “The In Crowd” was called “Hot Dawgit.” And we spent a lot of time on that song — three days. He said there’s this other little melody [“Sun Goddess”], just a beautiful little melody. It’s short and to fill it out you’re gonna have to take a couple solos.
“But don’t worry,” he said. “ ‘Hot Dawgit’ is gonna be better than ‘The In Crowd,’ ” were his words. So we spent about three days on “Hot Dawgit” and put it out and it was on the radio for about two weeks. We had spent about three hours on “Sun Goddess” because it was just a beautiful easy song to play. We called the radio [and said], “Why is the album running out of stores [but] the radio stopped playing the record?” Because they’re coming in asking for the album that has “Sun Goddess” on it. So we put out a three-minute version. Back in those days radio didn’t want it too much more than three minutes. But people kept buying the album because they didn’t want the radio version — they wanted the seven-minute-plus version.
I remember the first time I played Carnegie Hall because my whole family, my dad, my mom were there. And that same night we did Johnny Carson. You’re probably too young to remember Carson. He was the big thing at night, he was the night guy — huge. So we taped Johnny Carson at four in the afternoon, went home, took a nap and then played Carnegie Hall. That was a big moment in my life.
Gauntlet: What do you listen to on your own time these days? Any surprising genre outreach or do you stick within the wheelhouse of what you’re making at the time?
Lewis: I have almost 20,000 songs on my iPod. They range from Bach, Beethoven — all the classics — to, of course, jazz — all the genres of jazz and R&B and pop. I mean, if it’s good music, no matter what it is I have it on my iPod. I don’t have favourite songs that I get hung up on.
Gauntlet: What kind of styles and sounds do you hope to bring to Calgary for “A Night of Chicago Jazz?”
Lewis: To Calgary I’m bringing what I’m doing lately. And I never try to describe what I’m doing. But I try to keep the music fresh and come up with some original music besides some of the music people find familiar with me. Of course we’ll be featuring Henry Johnson on guitar, Josh Ramos on bass and Charles Heath on drums. And Tim Gant on keyboard.
See Ramsey Lewis perform with guest vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway and Marquis Hill on Nov. 17 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall for “A Night of Chicago Jazz.” Tickets start at $35 and can be found online. Tune into CJSW 90.9 FM on Tuesday Nov. 14 at 11 a.m. or 8 p.m. to hear the interview on The Gauntlet Radio.
Interview edited for clarity and brevity.