Ramsey Lewis - Revisiting the sun goddess
Ramsey Lewis remembers the day his drummer handed in his notice because he was going to form his own band. This wasn’t going to be just any band. They were going to play pop music, soul, funk and R&B, but they were also going to put on a show with acrobatics, magic, all sorts of stuff, and reach huge audiences.
“I thought he had sunstroke,” says Lewis. “I thought he might have been going to form his own jazz or blues band, because he’d played with great jazz musicians, like Sonny Stitt, and he’d played with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. So I think I told him to take a couple of Aspirin and lay down. But what did I know? Off he went and sure enough, one day a few years later I got a call saying, We played to 20,000 people last night.”
The drummer in question was Maurice White and the band was Earth, Wind & Fire, who did indeed put on a show on their way to selling squillions of records in the 1970s and into the 1980s with hits such as September, After the Love Has Gone and Boogie Wonderland. White never lost touch with his former boss, however, and he went on to play a major part in the album whose revival brings Lewis to Scotland for the first time this weekend, Sun Goddess.
By the time Sun Goddess appeared Lewis had had a good few hits himself with his trio, including the million sellers Wade in the Water, Hang on Sloopy and most famously, The In Crowd. His recipe for success didn’t involve acrobatics and magic but it did share Earth, Wind & Fire’s desire to communicate, something Lewis had learned through playing piano in church in his native Chicago.
“My father was a frustrated piano player,” says Lewis. “He never had the opportunity to take lessons, so he decided that one of his children was going to learn how to play properly – and he chose my sister. She wasn’t jumping up and down with excitement at this news but I overheard this conversation and it seemed to me that they were going to take her for ice cream and cake and not take me. So I made a fuss and they let me take piano lessons too from the age of four.”
The first lesson he learned was that he shouldn’t just show up once a week. He had to practise every day. He took this to heart and instead of finding practice a chore, he began to really love the piano - so much so that his parents had to drag him off the piano stool to do his homework. When he was nine, his father announced that he was ready to play for his first church service.
“I played in church until I was fifteen or so and it’s funny but when the Ramsey Lewis Trio took off, people would talk about how we sounded funky or bluesy but for me it was the gospel thing that shone through,” he says. “I learned quite quickly that, when you’re playing in church, if the people are sitting there like bumps on a log, then you’re in trouble. You need to get a reaction, whether that means them hollerin’ ‘Oh yeah’ or moving their bodies or in the way they sing. My dad, who was a good singer, used to sing differently, more expressively, when I played in a certain way and I took notice of all this and it served me well.”
The Ramsey Lewis Trio, which became one of the most successful groups in jazz and featured in several editions, including the one with Maurice White on drums, was actually a happy accident. When Lewis was invited on his first jazz gig with a local septet at the age of sixteen, he knew very little about jazz, aside from some Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Meade Lux Lewis records of his father’s, and his induction wasn’t, he says, the greatest experience.
“These were good musicians I was playing with,” he says. “I mean, one of them went on to play with Sarah Vaughan, so that’ll let you know the kind of quality we’re talking about. And there I was, I didn’t know any of the jazz standards they expected me to play. I’d been studying Bach and Chopin, which I still love to play to this day, and playing in the church. But the band leader was very patient. He invited me round the next day, showed me a few things and suggested I listen to a few pianists, all of whom, like Oscar Peterson, were playing with trios. So when the rest of the band began leaving and we were left with just piano, bass and drums, we decided to continue as a trio.”
Spotted by a local deejay and recommended to the legendary blues label Chess, in 1956 they joined a roster of artists that included Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James on the blues side and Ahmad Jamal, the pianist whose trio was a major influence on Miles Davis, on the Cadet jazz subsidiary.
“We weren’t thinking about money in those days,” says Lewis. “And don’t tell my wife I said that. We were working in the same building as Muddy, Wolf and Little Willie John and getting to play with Sonny Stitt and Clark Terry, people like that, and it was just such a thrill to be part of what was going on. But then, I remember one day just after our first album came out, I met this guy in the street and he said, Was that you I heard on the radio the other day playing Carmen? And I thought, out of all the piano players out there, this guy’s recognising me. I must be doing something right because if you’re being yourself and being honest, you’ll make music that has its own fingerprint.”
Lewis’s fingerprint continued to be instantly recognisable, even when the original trio broke up amid some acrimony and Maurice White, who was Chess Records’ staff drummer at the time, came onboard. Then in 1974, during one his frequent phone calls after he too had left the trio, White, offered Lewis a tune that was surplus to Earth, Wind & Fire’s requirements and that he promised would be bigger than The In Crowd.
“I was already planning to record with a Fender Rhodes electric piano because I liked the sound and the feel of it and when I told Maurice, he said, well we’re travelling from Los Angeles to New York next week, why don’t we stop off and help you,” says Lewis. “So we have this expanded band with electric bass, guitar, synthesiser and percussion and we record Maurice’s tune, Hot Dawgit, which we released as a single and four or five people bought it [not true: it made the US top fifty]. Then Maurice says, just as he’s packing up, I have another one. It’s very simple, just needs some vocals, and that became the title track of the album, Sun Goddess. And Maurice was right, it was very simple. We just added those “way-o” vocals and when the album started flying out of the shops we found out that people were buying the album for that one track, the one that was almost an afterthought.”
Lewis continued working with the Sun Goddess quintet for several years before reverting to an acoustic trio and with a busy schedule that has seen him get into long form compositions, including one with a ballet company, he didn’t think about Sun Goddess again until, during his annual visit to Japan last year, the idea of an electric band was raised.
“I thought my electric band had been forgotten but the people at the Blue Note in Tokyo said that their audiences kept asking when I was going to bring it back again. So I promised I’d think about it,” says Lewis. “Then my agent called in November and said that the venues in the States were asking for Sun Goddess and I thought, well, maybe there’s something in this.”
He booked a studio for a try-out with some new musicians and some new music in the Sun Goddess style and had so much fun playing it that the rehearsal became a recording session. So when Lewis and his band fetch up in Glasgow this weekend, they’ll be promoting a new album, Ramsey, Taking Another Look, as well as revisiting in its entirety a classic from the 1970s.
“These guys I have in my band are so good that I sent them the music and when they turned up to rehearse they already knew it, we just had to talk about dynamics and tempos,” he says. “I’m seventy-six and I’ve played with a few really good musicians in my time, but right now this feels like the best band I’ve ever had. I love playing music. My wife’ll tell you that I can hardly wait to get into the practice room every day but it’s even more enjoyable when you’re bouncing ideas off a hall full of people. It’s like I was saying earlier, you’ve got to communicate.”
From The Herald, June 29, 2011.