Ramsey Lewis Hangs On to His Popular Hits : Jazz: In ‘Sky Islands,’ which includes a medley of his biggest successes, he infuses pop tunes with his own rhythms--in a contemporary way.
Ramsey Lewis’ version of “Hang On Sloopy” was, in the late ‘60s, the perfect party track: upbeat, swinging and lively.
Taking off from the familiar refrain, in which a number of voices could be heard singing the lyric somewhere in the background, Lewis scored a big hit by turning the ‘60s pop ditty into a rhythmic workout full of upper register trills and a gospel-like fervor, while the sound of laughter and tinkling glassware provided a live recording session feel.
It wasn’t the first time Lewis hit the charts by turning a pop tune into an instrumental jazz number. In 1965, he broke from his Chicago-bound reputation onto the national charts with singer Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd,” followed the next year by “Wade in the Water,” also by Gray. His trio, which then included drummer and Earth, Wind and Fire founding member Maurice White, broke club records around the country and appeared at Carnegie Hall.
The formula--taking pop tunes and infusing them with jazz sensibilities, sometimes in a trio format, sometimes with orchestra--served Lewis well in the years before 1971, during which he released about 30 albums, mostly for the Chicago-based Chess label. In the years that followed, Lewis may have faded from the pop charts, but he still remains true to his chosen direction.
Evidence comes on his latest release for the GRP label, “Sky Islands,” on which he covers tunes from Lionel Richie, Janet Jackson and, as he has for years, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The album also marks a reunion with Earth, Wind and Fire’s White, who helped produce the CD.
“I’ve tried to stay true to my goals,” Lewis said from his Chicago home. “To explore interesting harmonic progressions and work with melodies that sing.”
But while the direction remains the same, Lewis, who plays Saturday at the Long Beach Jazz Festival, has kept contemporary, utilizing synthesizers played by Michael Logan to provide orchestral texture, bringing in the strong vocal presence of Eve Cornelius on Richie’s “Love Will Find a Way” and updating the entire sound with thumb-pounded electric bass.
“Those traditional jazz rhythms as inspired by the great artists, that straight-ahead, 4/4 feeling, is always there,” he said, “but I try to allow myself to be influenced by current rhythms and sounds. And when I’m not, I have two sons who pull me by the coattails in that direction.” (Lewis’ son Frayne Lewis co-produced “Sky Islands” with White, his father and others.)
Also present on the album is a medley of Lewis’ biggest successes, “Wade in the Water,” “The In Crowd” and “Hang On Sloopy” complete with voices joining in on the Sloopy refrain. With lots of brass, a passage of rippling steel drums created by synthesizer and Lewis’ trademark hipster pianisms, the cut, compared to the earthiness of the originals, says a lot about the keyboardist’s current thinking.
“I’ve tried to exclude those songs from my shows at various times. And invariably a ton of people come up and say, ‘Why didn’t you play ‘Wade in the Water’ or ‘Hang On Sloopy’?” I thought that people would eventually get tired of hearing them, but I guess not. It was my wife who suggested that I combine them in a medley. And it works.”
And the piano playing that goes into that medley is not the same as the ‘60s version.
“The difference now is that I try to be more economical with notes and a bit more introspective with the solos. It’s not something I have to make an effort to do. It’s just the way I feel about life and music these days.”
GRP, which is reissuing a host of treasures from the Chess label archives, has provided fuel for past-present comparison with the release of “Maiden Voyage (and More),” a string and orchestra embellished collection from 1968 arranged by Lewis’ late friend Charles Stepney. Lennon and McCartney’s “Julia,” which reappears on the current “Sky Islands” release, is given the full orchestral treatment on the ‘60s recording, with Lewis embellishing the theme behind the ensemble before tracking the chorus with rich chords.
“Charles was the staff arranger for Chess in the early ‘60s,” said Lewis, who says in the liner notes to “Maiden Voyage” that Stepney (who died in 1976) was the equal of arranger-bandleader Quincy Jones. “I heard some of his work and it smacked of classical music. And when we got to talking, we found out we shared common ground, not only in music, but in our life philosophy as well. His star was just beginning to shine when he passed away.”
Lewis said he intentionally tried to stay true to Stepney’s arrangement of “Julia” on the current release.
“People always ask us to play it, and we still play (Stepney’s) ‘Close Your Eyes and Remember’ in concert. His music has that timeless attraction. Whether it was written 400 years ago by the classical composers or 50 years ago by Duke Ellington, great music has that aspect; it touches the listener. You can change the rhythm and make it more current, but the heart of it never changes. Tony Bennett is now teaching us all a thing or two about that.
“The most important ingredient is moving the audience, the desire to touch a person’s heart as well as his head. The great music from musicians like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington really moves you. They can make you laugh or cry or feel joy. Intellect and emotion has to be stirred up together.”
Though busy touring the States this year, Lewis will find time to join Grover Washington Jr. in a project dubbed “Urban Knights,” which will be unveiled later this year. In addition, he just completed 17 one-hour television specials dubbed “Bet on Jazz” for the Black Entertainment Cable Network and continues to host the syndicated radio program “The Ramsey Lewis Show” that originates from his hometown. In 1995, he makes a world tour with his combo.
Among those performing with him in Long Beach will be longtime associate guitarist Henry Johnson, as well as electric keyboardist Logan.
“The whole idea for Logan is to take the place of the orchestra; strings, horns or whatever sound we need. It gives the group a bigger sound.”
* Ramsey Lewis performs Saturday at the Long Beach Jazz Festival, Rainbow Lagoon Park, where Linden Avenue dead-ends into Shoreline Drive. Other acts include Gato Barbieri, Oscar Brown Jr. and Kirk Whalum. Festival begins at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 (lawn seating) and $125. $50 seats are sold out. (310) 436-7794.
THE LONG BEACH
(in order of appearance from 7 to 10 p.m.)
* Norman Brown, guitarist
* Keiko Matsui, keyboards
* Dianne Reeves, singer
(in order of appearance from 2 to 10 p.m.)
* Barbara Morrison, singer
* Oscar Brown Jr., singer
* Gato Barbieri, saxophonist
* Ramsey Lewis, pianist
* Kirk Whalum, saxophonist
* Bobby Caldwell, singer
* Poncho Sanchez, percussionist
(in order of appearance from 2 to 10 p.m.)
* Paul Russo, saxophonist
* Al Williams and the Jazz Society
* Miki Howard, singer, with Alex Bugnono
* Tania Maria, singer
* David Benoit, keyboards
* Joe Williams, singer
* George Howard, saxophonist
At the Rainbow Park Lagoon, Shoreline Drive and Linden Ave., downtown Long Beach. General admission: $25 per day in advance, $30 at the gate. Reserved box seating: $35 Friday, $50 Saturday, Sunday. VIP seating (includes dinner and a bottle of wine): $100 Friday, $125 Saturday, Sunday. Tickets through Ticketmaster: (714) 740-2000.