Skip to content

Chart topping pianist Ramsey Lewis dies at 87

American jazz composer and pianist Ramsey Lewis performs with the Ramsey Lewis Trio (L-R: Ramsey Lewis – piano, Cleveland Eaton – bass, Morris Jennings – drums, head just visible above the music stand) on Soul Train episode 104, aired 6/22/1974. (Photo by Soul Train via Getty Images).

Composer, jazz pianist, and radio and television personality Ramsey Lewis died at the age of 87 on Sept. 5. Known for his crossover success in the jazz and popular realms, he died in his sleep of natural causes in his hometown of Chicago, Ill., according to his manager Brett Steele.

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis was born in the musical melting pot of Chicago, a fertile incubator of jazz, rhythm and blues. Like many of his contemporaries, Lewis’ talents were nurtured in a gospel infused-church environment by parents (Pauline and Ramsey Senior) who also enjoyed classical music.

Brought up the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, he started piano at four, then began serious training at the Chicago Music College Preparatory School.

As a teenager, he performed with a variety of ensembles before enjoying professional success with the Ramsey Lewis Trio on Chess Records, featuring drummer “Red” Holt (who later enjoyed prosperity with his own “Young-Holt Unlimited,” with the 1966 Gold record hit “Soulful Strut” in turn being sampled by numerous hip-hop artists), and bassist Eldee Young.

Much later, Holt was replaced by another talented percussionist, one Maurice White, who later became famous as a singer, songwriter, producer, and most notably the front man for multi-Grammy award winning band Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Lewis’ eclectic stylings on the keyboard facilitated his becoming one of the first jazz men to to achieve commercial success in the lucrative popular music idiom in the 1960s, with an eccentric medley of hits like “Hang on, Snoopy,” “The In Crowd,” and his 1966 rendition of the traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

His financial success continued into the 1970s, as he added the electric piano to his repertoire.

Besides his recording and touring, he became a host on the radio airways with “Legends of Jazz,” and “The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show,” which helped usher in the “smooth jazz” genre of the 1980s and 90s. Both shows were syndicated, and enabled him to move on into television, and by 2006 he hosted “Legends of Jazz,” this time on public TV nationwide.

All in all, Ramsey Lewis went on to record more than 80 albums; earn five Gold records (denoting sales in excess of 500,000 units); and garner three Grammy Awards. His first marriage to Geraldine Taylor ended in 1989. He was wed to Janet Tamillow at the time of his death and is survived by seven children.