The American jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, who has died aged 87, enjoyed considerable crossover success. For almost 60 years Lewis was one of the world’s most popular jazz musicians: a knack for interpreting pop songs as jazz instrumentals won him youthful audiences and helped make Lewis’s records part of the soundtrack to British club culture. His ability to adapt and develop his sound as modern music changed ensured he retained his appeal to different generations of jazz and funk fans.
By the time Lewis experienced his breakthrough US hit with The In Crowd in 1965 he already had a decade’s experience as a bandleader alongside working with the celebrated musicians Max Roach, Sonny Stitt and Clark Terry. Whereas they pursued a modern jazz aesthetic that emphasised rigorous experimentation, Lewis chose to make less confrontational music and, in doing so, won a large international audience.
Lewis’s mid-1960s US breakthrough was not replicated in the UK. There he would only enter the Top 40 once, in 1972, with Wade in the Water, an instrumental retooling of a gospel standard, reaching No 31 in September 1972 (some six years after it was a No 19 US Pop charts hit).
Yet his popularity in Britain went far beyond the charts: from The In Crowd onwards Lewis’s music found an appreciative audience – initially, the 60s found mods dancing to him as they embraced US jazz/R&B instrumentals, while the rhythm and blues star Graham Bond would perform Lewis numbers with his jazz-rock band. By the late 70s, Britfunk groups such as Light of the World were adding elements of Lewis’s more contemporary jazz-funk into their sound.
In the 80s, a new generation of British club DJs began picking apart Lewis’s 70s recordings, and album tracks such as Slick and Brazilica – both from the album Salongo (1976) – became mainstays in what would end up labelled “acid jazz”.
Jazz FM took on Lewis’s weekly syndicated Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis show, broadcasting it for several years in the 90s – the London-based station was once pleasantly surprised to find a vacationing Lewis dropping by to say “hello”. By then, rap and dance producers were regularly sampling Lewis’s recordings, so bringing his music to a new generation of listeners.
Lewis released more than 80 albums, received five US gold records and won three Grammy awards. In 2007 the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, the highest US honour for a jazz musician. He continued to perform until 2019 when he announced his retirement – even then he kept on recording, leaving albums to be released and a memoir – co-written with the Chicago journalist Aaron Cohen – due to be published next year.
Lewis was born in Chicago, one of three children of Pauline and Ramsey Lewis. His father worked as a maintenance man and the family lived in the Cabrini-Green Homes, a new public housing complex.
His mother encouraged him to learn the piano from the age of four and, with his family, he attended Zion Hill baptist church – the gospel music he experienced there would, Lewis later noted, never leave him. His father was the choir director and encouraged his son to accompany the singers.
Lewis graduated from Edward Jenner elementary school in 1948 and enrolled at Chicago music college with the idea of becoming a concert pianist, soon leaving to marry Geraldine Taylor, taking a job in a record shop and joining the Clefs, a seven-piece dance band. In 1956 he formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio with the Clefs’ rhythm section bassist Eldee Young and the drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt.
The trio signed to Argo – a subsidiary of Chess Records, Chicago’s foremost independent label. That year saw the release of their debut album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-men of Swing. In it, Lewis largely interpreted standards with a jazz flavour. He continued this formula – at least one album a year (including live, bossa nova and Christman albums) – into the 60s, attracting solid sales if little recognition.
The In Crowd album was the trio’s 17th LP and third live album. Its title track, when issued as a single, was picked up by US radio, soaring to No 1 in the R&B charts and No 5 in Pop while the album reached No 2 in the US charts. The band’s dynamic performance, recreating effectively the excitement and joy Lewis recalled from church, connected with listeners and Lewis found himself famous. Later that same year they released another live album, Hang on Ramsey!, providing another hit single with their interpretation of the 60s pop hit Hang on Sloopy.
Tensions between Lewis and his rhythm section saw Young and Holt leaving to form Redd Holt Unlimited. The 1966 album Wade in the Water gave Lewis his third US hit single and was his first recording to feature the Memphis native Maurice White on drums. White left Lewis in 1969 to lead the hugely popular Earth, Wind & Fire.
In 1974, White produced his former employer’s Sun Goddess, giving Lewis his most successful album and ensuring his sound was suitably keyed into a contemporary jazz-funk aesthetic.
Lewis continued to tour and to record regularly – including sessions with Minnie Riperton, Stevie Wonder and Nancy Wilson – alongside appearing on the rapper Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol 2 album.
Everyone from Mariah Carey to the Geto Boys would sample Lewis’s recordings. He reunited his original trio for one album in 1983, joined the all-star jazz fusion group Urban Knights for eight albums between 1995 and 2019, hosted the Legends of Jazz TV series and, during the Covid-19 pandemic, produced a monthly Saturday Salon livestream series.
“Ramsey radiated class, character, and substance,” wrote White in his autobiography.
His first marriage ended in divorce, and two sons predeceased him. He is survived by his second wife, Janet (nee Tamillow), two daughters and three sons.
• Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis, musician, born 27 May 1935; died 12 September 2022