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Fresh Air remembers jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis


This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis died Monday at the age of 87. In 1965, his trio reached the pop charts with a live recording they made in a Washington, D.C. nightclub. That record, "The 'In' Crowd," was the rare jazz single that landed on the Billboard Top 10 list. In 2015, on the 50th anniversary of "The 'In' Crowd," our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, told us how that single came to be.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1964 covering Chris Kenner's "Something You Got," mostly a regional hit out of New Orleans three years before. Some Washingtonians obviously knew it, singing along when Lewis recorded it at the Bohemian Caverns. A year later, in May '65, the trio were back to record at the Caverns on Washington's so-called Black Broadway. As Lewis has told a couple of interviewers, the trio met at a nearby eatery to discuss repertoire. Their kibitzing waitress, Nettie Gray, suggested a current pop hit, "The 'In' Crowd" by Dobie Gray. Ramsey Lewis didn't know that tongue-in-cheek ode to hipster self-congratulation, so they dropped a coin in the jukebox.


DOBIE GRAY: (Singing) I'm in with the in crowd. I know every latest dance. When you're in with the in crowd, it's easy to find romance at a spot where the beat's really hot. If it's square, we ain't there.

WHITEHEAD: I hope they left Nettie Gray a very good tip. Ramsey Lewis liked "The 'In' Crowd" enough to work up an arrangement in the unjazzy key of D major so bassist Eldee Young could work his open strings. And the trio really amped up the groove. Opening night, the audience instantly locked in with drummer Redd Holt.


WHITEHEAD: The album version of "The 'In' Crowd" ran six minutes, and the first half got released as a single. By August, it hit the pop charts where it spent 12 weeks edging into the top five. It was about the last big jazz single and an odd one. The trio gets loud and sometimes very quiet. But mostly, they just play the melody over and over. Going back to the top once more could drive the crowd wild.


WHITEHEAD: I am not big on audience participation, but the house really makes this record. Sitting at home by the hi-fi, you felt like a member of the in crowd just grooving along with that hip audience of jazz fans who dug pop or vice versa. There's more than a little gospel music in the interplay between preaching piano and the amen corner. And you can trace the blurring of roles between arts maker and consumer back to West African ring dances.

Ramsey Lewis' "The 'In' Crowd" was a potent cultural signifier in the summer of the Watts Riots and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Back at the Bohemian Caverns, the trio ended the tune like they already knew they had a hit.


WHITEHEAD: Suddenly, the trio were huge. Before they moved on to big theaters, they still had some club dates to do, which let them make a few "In Crowd" knockoffs, like "Hang On Sloopy." But now the audience joining in seemed less spontaneous. Ramsey Lewis told James Isaacs for some old liner notes we steal from, they started making so much money, it wasn't fun anymore.

The bassist and drummer split to form the trio Young-Holt Unlimited. They covered a lot of pop tunes, even more than Lewis' new trio with future Earth, Wind and Fire star Maurice White on drums. Nobody from the original band ever had a hit as big as "The 'In' Crowd" again, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The stars lined up just right just once.

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMSEY LEWIS TRIO'S "HANG ON SLOOPY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.