A Cover That Gave Jazz Lots of Soul
Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. Photo: Ravinia Festival
Oct. 7, 2015 6:20 p.m. ET
It happened again Saturday night. When jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis launched into “The In Crowd” during his encore at the James K. Polk Theater here, the audience of 338 shouted “Yeah!” and began clapping along—the way club-goers had done in 1965 on Mr. Lewis’s live hit recording.
Fifty years ago this week, Mr. Lewis’s slinky instrumental jazz cover of “The In Crowd” peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s pop chart. A month later, his album of the same name reached No. 2—just behind the Beatles’ “Help!” and ahead of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”—remaining on the chart for 47 weeks.
Mr. Lewis and his trio won a Grammy that year, and the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009. But the recording was more than just a hit. Its funky gospel feel inaugurated a new pop sound and marked the start of the soul-jazz movement.
Within months, the unexpected success of “The In Crowd” encouraged other jazz artists to embrace soul as a way to remain relevant on jukeboxes. In 1966, the list of jazz versions of soul hits recorded included Wes Montgomery’s “Goin’ Out of My Head,” Junior Mance’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” and Big John Patton’s “Ain’t That Peculiar.”
As the genre caught on, soul-jazz recordings became more elaborate with the addition of horns. Hits included Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (1966), Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” (1968), Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut” (1968) and Les McCann and Eddie Harris’s “Compared to What” (1969).
During his concert on Saturday night, Mr. Lewis, 80, performed not only soul-jazz but also an eclectic mix with guitarist Henry Johnson, bassist Joshua Ramos and drummer Charles Heath. The set list included Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Satin Doll,” John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord,” the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly, Wow” and three medleys of gospel, Brazilian and Cole Porter songs. Mr. Lewis saved “Sun Goddess,” his 1974 hit with Earth, Wind & Fire, for his encore.
What distinguishes Mr. Lewis from most jazz pianists is his seductive use of dynamics paired with a gospel-rooted rhythmic pulse. His sermon-like approach to the keyboard is gentle and hushed, resulting in delicate and highly melodic interpretations. But Mr. Lewis isn’t shy about adding stronger touches and trademark glissandos—influences from Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, two of his favorite jazz pianists.
“Nuance is the name of the game,” Mr. Lewis said during a phone conversation after the concert. “I find it’s better to have the audience lean forward to hear you than push back emotionally against loud music.”
Born in 1935, Mr. Lewis grew up in Chicago and started classical piano lessons at age 4. When he was 9, Mr. Lewis began playing for Chicago’s Wayman AME Church, expanding again to jazz at 15 with the Cleffs, a local septet. But when the draft thinned the Cleffs’ ranks in the early 1950s, Mr. Lewis formed a trio with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt.
In May 1965, the three musicians were in a booth of a Washington, D.C., coffee shop when their waitress overheard them talking about song ideas. Mr. Lewis told her they needed a song that would get the audience’s fingers popping and hips swinging for their live recording in the coming days at the Bohemian Caverns nightclub.
The waitress asked if they had heard Dobie Gray’s hit vocal of “The In Crowd.” “She played the song on the jukebox and I heard instantly how our version should sound,” Mr. Lewis said.
The trio bought the single, and when they brought it back to their hotel, Mr. Lewis put it on his portable phonograph so they could work out an arrangement. But at the club, they hesitated to play the song.
“The first night, the audience at the first two sets seemed a little stiff, so we skipped it,” said Mr. Lewis. “On the last set, at 1 a.m., things were more loose and we went into it.” Almost immediately, the audience began clapping on the second and fourth beats—and double-clapping on some. When the live record was released, its hip, party feel inspired other jazz artists to record soul hits live.
But the crossover success of soul-jazz also had an unintended effect on teens. Many, like this writer, went off to the jazz departments of record stores with the same basic question: What else do you have that sounds like “Soulful Strut” and “The In Crowd”?
Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about music and the arts at JazzWax.com