Ramsey Lewis, Chart-Topping Jazz Pianist, Dead at 87

Ramsey Lewis. Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Ramsey Lewis, one of the defining jazz talents of the mid-20th century, is dead at age 87, AP News confirmed with Lewis’s son Bobby. “He was just at peace,” Bobby Lewis said. “Most people say when they met Dad that he was a class act. He was that way even through his last breath.” Ramsey Lewis’s career spanned more than 60 years, beginning in 1956 with his first album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-men of Swing. After beginning piano lessons at age 4, Lewis went on to win three Grammy Awards in his lifetime and received seven gold records.

Lewis is best known for his 1965 live jazz album, The In Crowd, and the accompanying title track, which was released as a single for Chess Records. Lewis recorded both the album and the single as part of the Ramsey Lewis Trio along with Eldee Young and Red Holt. The album hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts; the single reached No. 5 and was later deemed “about the last big jazz single” by NPR. The group’s rendition of “Hang on Sloopy” reached No. 11 on the pop-music chart and No. 6 on the R&B chart in 1965, and their version of “Wade in the Water,” a song closely associated with the music of the Underground Railroad, peaked at No. 19 on the pop charts in 1966. Lewis collaborated with some of the biggest names in 20th-century music, including Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Al Jarreau, Pat Metheny, and Maurice White, who was a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio before founding Earth, Wind & Fire.

Lewis continued to produce music throughout his life, with his last album being released in 2021, and some of his later work was produced by White. He also hosted a radio show on WNUA-FM that was syndicated nationwide. “Ramsey’s passion for music was truly fueled by the love and dedication of his fans across the globe,” Lewis’s widow, Jan, said in a statement posted on Facebook. “He loved touring and meeting music lovers from so many cultures and walks of life. It was our family’s great pleasure to share Ramsey in this special way with all those who admired his God-given talents. We are forever grateful for your support.”

In 2007, Lewis, a Chicago native, received a Legendary Landmark Award for “helping shape Chicago’s civic and cultural skyline.” He was also a longtime member of the board of the Merit School of Music, where he ran master classes and worked to provide students of all backgrounds with access to music education. “I believe that my father — his love for the piano and his passion for the piano and how he coveted this love and how he protected it — that gave him longevity,” Bobby Lewis told AP News. “He recognized the gift God had given him.”

Ramsey Lewis, Chart-Topping Jazz Pianist, Dead at 87