Grammy Award winning pianist Ramsey Lewis has recorded enough music to fill an 80 GB iPod and is still going strong. The Chicago native released his first album in 1956, Ramsey Lewis And The Gentleman Of Swing, and has released over 80 since. Hip-Hop producers have revered Mr. Lewis’ work for years, incorporating samples of his songs in tracks by Leaders of The New School (“Case of The PTA”) Pete Rock and CL Smooth (“Escapism”) and even Mariah Carey (“Stay The Night.”)
With his latest album, Ramsey:Taking Another Look, in stores now TheUrbandaily.com took a moment to speak with this living legend about some of his more well-known songs and the inspirations behind them.
TUD: How did you come to record albums at such a blistering pace?
RL: Well, you know in the early days, we didn’t know any better. So the company put out an album every six or seven months. So for about 12 or more years, we put out an album every six months. Then, I left Chess Records and went over to Columbia. When I got there, we put out albums every eight months. Columbia said, “Wait. We’re doing too much.” That was in the 70s and I had [already] released 30 or 40 albums by then.
TUD: There are a few songs of yours that are favorites of DJs and producers and I wanted to ask you about the makings of them. One of those records being “The Mighty Quinn.”
RL: Richard Evans brought me that song. I wasn’t familiar with it until he brought it to me. Richard showed me the arrangement we would be doing with that song and I fell in love with it. I enjoy that song to this day. I have it on my iPod, but I don’t get to hear it too often because I have 15,000 songs on there. Whenever it comes on, I thank Richard Evans for bringing it to my attention.
That was one of the popular pop tunes of the time. Richard Evans heard it and wanted to see what I could do with it. I forget the rock group that wrote it.
TUD: Can you talk about the culture of doing remakes. It’s pretty standard in jazz, but some people don’t understand the concept behind covers. Was the idea to do your own interpretation?
RL: The word ‘cover’ came about from the rock ‘n’ rollers of the 60s and 70s. Back then, people used to make fun and say, “Rock ‘n’ Roll is only based on four chords.” But these young kids were proud of the songs they were writing. Whether it was based on two or four chords, the melody and the lyrics made these young songwriters proud.
Early on, young musicians didn’t have too much music education and the music became popular because they wrote it themselves and if you recall, the Vietnam War caused the young people to disown everything their parents were apart of. Young people had started their own culture where they began buying each other’s music. That music sold hundreds of thousands of copies and began to become the norm. So when a young person would record a song written by some rock ‘n’ roll group of their parent’s era, the question became, “Why are you covering that when we should be recording our own music?” That word ‘cover’ became negative to me. We wouldn’t have Bach or Beethoven if someone would’ve said, “Why are you covering “Moonlight Sonata”?” Good music is good music. Jazz musicians recognize good music. We liked the fact we could improvise on these songs because they already had a good song structure and were well written. This is not to knock anybody, but it shows a lack of knowing music history and a lack of culture to use a term like that.
TUD: Another song you’ve done several versions of is “Le Fleur.” What was it about that song that inspired you to perform it?
RL: Charles Stepney wrote “Le Fleur” and what really fascinated me about that song was the simplicity of it. I loved how he took a recurring bassline and a lyrical melody and got to the bridge. He made that sound so interesting. Also, the way he used the voices. There were no lyrics to the song, so he made up these sounds. It sounded like the vocals were recorded in another language and that was because they weren’t saying anything. It was so simple the way he put it together and I just loved it. I’ve recorded that song at least three times.
Without Charles Stepney Earth, Wind and Fire would sound a little different because he had a lot to do with their development in songwriting and arranging. Stepney had a lot to do with the careers of Earth, Wind and Fire, Minnie Riperton, Ramsey Lewis, and many others.
TUD: Another popular song of yours is “Sun Goddess.”
RL: “Sun Goddess” almost didn’t happen. I was halfway through with an album. We were recording and had to stop to go do a concert. Maurice White form Earth, Wind and Fire called to tell me about their sold out show at Madison Square Garden and told me he had a tune he wanted me to listen to because he thought it could bigger than my biggest record, “The In Crowd.”
They were headed from New York to Los Angeles and I was leaving Washington D.C. and going to Chicago. He said he would have some of the band stop in Chicago and show us the song. We spent three days perfecting that song in the studio. I asked what the name was and they said, “Hot Doggit.” As an afterthought, he mentioned that they had a 16 bar melody with no intro. After they played the song, everybody was just did a solo on it. Don Myrick did a solo on it too. Maurice was getting into lyrics. He said we’re just going to overdub us saying,”Way oh.” Somebody suggested the name as an afterthought because it was a nine minute song, so nobody thought it was going to get airplay because of the length.
We put out “Hot Doggit” and it sold about 35 copies. We named the album Sun Goddess because we thought it was unique. The album was selling and we couldn’t figure out why. The record company checked out why the album was selling when the single we put out had stopped being played on radio three weeks after we put it out. It turns out people were going to stores asking for the album with the eight minute song on it. We edited it down to five minutes to get airplay on pop and soul stations, but the jazz stations played the eight minute version. The five minute one is on my new album.
However, the moral of that story is to go in and record all music to the best of your ability instead of trying to predict which one is going to be a hit. Most jazz musicians don’t have that approach to music. We try to think of it as a dinner where you have the appetizer, entree, and dessert. We never go in thinking, “This is going to be THE single.” You just don’t know. That’s one of the problems with pop and R&B groups. They approach an album as if each song is going to be a single, when it’s really up to the audience.
TUD: You had another song called “Betcha By Golly Wow.” That song has been done by plenty of people. What can you tell me about your version of the song?
RL: When I first heard The Stylistics version of that song, I was already familiar with Thom Bell and Linda Creed, they wrote the song and plenty of other hits. I liked it because the name was unique. Musically, I was attracted to the melody. It’s a very romantic song. I liked the chord structures and harmonies too. The simplicity of it was great also.
Quite often people think to make an interesting song they need to make everything so complicated that only people with music degrees can understand. In all actuality, it’s the opposite. Simplicity rules the day.
TUD: Is that the case with “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right”?
RL: No. I heard Bobby “Blue” Bland record that and the way he sang that song sounded like there was a woman in his life that he felt that way about. I’m not sure if there was or wasn’t. Because of him, I felt I wanted to record it. The feeling of it made me want to record it. To this day, I don’t know all the lyrics, but I know enough of them.
That’s the thing about jazz musicians–we learned from Lester Young and the people who came before me–even though you’re an instrumentalist, it’s good to know the story behind the song. If there are lyrics, what did the writer mean? What did they intend for the listeners to feel when they head the song? Now, that’s not a rule of thumb, but jazz instrumentalists should take the time to learn the lyrics to songs.
TUD: When we last spoke you said you didn’t write “My Love For You” from Funky Serenity.
RL: “My Love For You” was written by Ed Green. He was a violin player. He wanted to play jazz. So he hung around jazz musicians and eventually he did play jazz. He started writing songs right away. Despite it not having words, I thought it was a very lyrical song. The simplicity of the melody made me want to do that song.
TUD: When did you record “My Love For You”? (Sampled by Musiq Soulchild in “Girl Next Door”)
RL: Let’s see. It was the second or third album for Columbia Records so it had to be in the early 70s. That was before Sun Goddess because Sun goddess was 1974. It had to be 1972 or 1973.
TUD: Who were you working with on that album?
RL: Cleveland Eaton was on bass. Morris Jennings was on drums. Maurice White had left a couple albums before that to form Earth, Wind & Fire.
TUD: I understand that you don’t really listen to the songs that sample your work. What are your general thoughts on having your work sampled or reused?
RL: I think it’s a high compliment for someone to listen to my music and feel like they would like to hear some of that in their own work. I appreciate it. However, as rap and hip-hop came along, I didn’t follow it. The reason that I didn’t follow it is because I didn’t think it would become as popular as it is today. I feel like hip-hop is an example of a positive coming out of a negative.
The negative was when the government–as they are doing today–started cutting budgets in education. When they started cutting budgets in education, the music and art programs went first. When I was in high school, I was taking private lessons and most weren’t. However, everybody was introduced to the basics of music. We had a symphony orchestra, marching band, jazz band. This was in the inner city. I’m talking about the inner city of Chicago. Back then, inner city Chicago was about 80% white.
As the 60s rolled in, whites were heading to the suburbs and minorities were filling the inner cities. The cutting of education budgets in the inner city schools was the first thing the government did. As more of the arts were cut in school, kids decided they needed to do their own thing and express themselves in their own way. Kids expressed themselves with what they were born with–rhythm and the use of words. Some probably thought, “We don’t have lyrics. So, we’re going to talk about life and what’s going on in our neighborhood.”
I found it unique and applauded the young people for finding a way to express themselves. On the other hand, I ask myself, “What if some of these kids had been exposed to harmony and melody? Would there be another Aretha Franklin? Would there be another Duke Ellington? What would come from these young people had they been exposed to the music education I was exposed to?”
The rhythms and stories by brothers like Common are quite attractive. The other stuff talking about, “I’m going to do your mother and your sister,” is such a turn off.
Learn more about Ramsey Lewis and his career in music at his website www.RamseyLewis.com