With almost 68 years of recordings and live performances to his name, Chicago soul-jazz keyboardist Ramsey Lewis has a huge cache of classics to bestow on crowds—easily enough to perform for three nights in a row without repeating himself. The 83-year-old musician's always been a preternaturally smooth operator on electric and acoustic pianos, as adept with dulcet ballads as he is with rousing up-tempo jams. He’s also had his astral and funky phases, as did most jazz artists in the 1970s; listen to Sun Goddess—a rare example of a heady album that was wildly popular—for the strongest convergence of those styles. Lewis is also an exceptional interpreter of other people’s compositions, with the Beatles songbook being a particular specialty, as the 1968 LP of Fab Four covers, Mother Nature's Son, proves. The man’s oeuvre is an elegant joy, in any mode.
"The 'In' Crowd" (1965)
The epitome of mid-'60s cool for a certain breed of hipster, "The 'In' Crowd" is simply an irresistible, understated party-starter. Recorded live in Washington DC, the tune reached No. 5 on the American charts, and it's still Lewis's commercial—if not artistic—peak.
"Wade in the Water" (1966)
There have been many great covers of this Negro spiritual, including the Staple Singers' and my favorite by Harvey Mandel, but Lewis's instrumental take did a lot of heavy lifting in bringing the song to mass consciousness. What a suave hip-swiveler...
"Jade East" (1967)
There's a good chance your hip parents or grandparents busted a move to "Jade East." The funk beats are heavy for '67 and the subtle sitar embellishments and unusual percussion toys tilt things into quasi-exotica realms, but very tastefully.
"Les Fleur" (1968)
Quite simply one of the most gorgeous melodies ever composed, "Les Fleur" is the apotheosis of sunshine-blessed orchestral soul. If the way the song elegantly scales up for its solar-flare climax doesn't turn your entire body into a goose bump, I feel bad for you. Utmost respect to the production wizard Charles Stepney for writing and arranging this masterpiece. He remains Ramsey's most rewarding accomplice in the studio, and I suggest that you pick up any Lewis record that bears Stepney's name in the credits—or the Cadet Records logo, for that matter. (Note: Rotary Connection's brilliant vocalist Minnie Riperton recorded a version of it, too, and it's just as essential as Lewis's. If there's one thing I've learned in this life, it's that the world can't have too many renditions of "Les Fleur" in it.)
"Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" (1968)
Okay, this is just an insanely imaginative rethinking of one of the Beatles' most manic rockers—especially the intro, which sounds as if it were sliced off of Morton Subotnick's Silver Apples of the Moon. "Monkey" can be found on Lewis's highly recommended Mother Nature's Son, an LP entirely devoted to redoing songs from The White Album. The "more cowbell" dictum is obeyed, and then some, and the whole thing works up a robust sweat through some of Lewis's most blown-out funk.
Our dude Maurice White on kalimba lifts "Uhuru" to sublime heights, animating a crisp, tight funk workout that would've fit nicely on an early Earth, Wind & Fire joint. "Uhuru" is the Swahili word for freedom, which is the state your ass should be in while this track's playing.
"Do Whatever Sets You Free" (1970)
Included because this swift, feet-don't-fail-me-now jam reminds me of Earth, Wind & Fire's classic blaxploitation-film theme for Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song—but a year before that movie hit screens... and because we all could use the fire that this burner sets under our butts.
If there's a weirder Ramsey Lewis track, please let me know. "Dreams" unspools some disturbing, disorienting sounds as well as some deep-ass Latin groove science. It bears some of Lewis's trademark loquacious motifs, too, but the overall thrust of "Dreams" is to upend your cozy notions of what a Ramsey Lewis composition is supposed to do. With its oddly angled, abstract passages that sound more at home on a Love Cry Want or Et Cetera album, "Dreams" captures the classy piano man at his most psychedelic.
"Sun Goddess" (1974)
Lewis's biggest hit since "The 'In' Crowd," "Sun Goddess" dominated the airwaves in the Detroit area in the mid '70s when I was an adolescent, and its spiritual, astral funk—elevated by falsetto "ba ba way-o"s from Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White, who also produced and co-wrote it—swathed my wonderstruck head in unprecedented peaceful vibes. I'd heard nothing like it up to that point, and all I knew was, I needed to hear more of whatever this stuff was. Not bad for a song that reached No. 44 on the US charts. Also of note: DJ Spooky sampled it for his 1996 bomb, "Galactic Funk."
"Don't It Feel Good" (1975)
I love this because it pays homage to the Meters' swampy, raunchy funk while still retaining Lewis's penchant for spacey atmospheres. It's definitely a go-to cut when I'm DJing. Honestly, though, it might be too sexy for most of the population.