Ramsey Lewis: Life is Good
AAJ: I feel like they've always been a big part of your sound, as a trio, as a unit, the same way that the Three Sounds were a great, unified group.
RL: Yeah, the same thing. [Bassist] Andy Simpkins and the drummer [Bill Dowdy] of the Three Sounds had great rhythm, they were a rhythm section, a wonderful one.
AAJ: Speaking of Chess, all of your albums (except one on Mercury prior moving to Columbia) were on Argo and Cadet, which is part of Chess Records. Did the blues artists and jazz artists mix together, or was it more separated by genre and subsidiary label?
RL: It was fairly separated. When we were down there recording, sometimes the blues guys would come through to take care of some business but very seldom would there be more than one session going on. So if the jazz group was recording, there was mostly jazz musicians coming and going. Every now and then there might be a blues group in one of the other studios. But we never got together and played. That might have been fun.
AAJ: I bet; one of my favorite records of yours is Mother Nature's Son (MCA, 1968) which was produced by Charles Stepney. I was curious if that record was more of a creative collaboration or if it was forced upon you by the label, the same way Howlin' Wolf's electric album was.
RL: It was less of a collaboration than Charles Stepney saying, "Ramsey, have you heard The Beatles album called the The White Album (Apple, 1968)?" I said, "Yeah, I have it." And he said, "You know, there's some really nice song on there, why don't you do an album and use those songs?" Now, I would find it difficult to do a whole album of Beatles songs-before that I had done "A Hard Day's Night" and a song called "And I Love Her"-and I just couldn't conceive of it. He said, "Would you let me do some arrangements and you let me know what you think of them and we'll go from there?" And I said, "Yeah." Well, he did some arrangements and we rehearsed two or three songs and I'm like, "Wow, let's do the album!" So I have to thank Charles Stepney for that. But I have to thank Charles Stepney for a lot of things, he was going to be the [producer] Quincy Jones of his day, had he lived. He died at a very early age. But as you know, he produced me, he produced Minnie Riperton, Howlin' Wolf and others [Rotary Connection, The Dells, Earth Wind and Fire, Muddy Waters, Terry Callier, Eddie Harris, The Emotions, among others].
AAJ: Charles Stepney's work is fascinating and very complex.
RL: Quite a talent.
AAJ: So you enjoyed making that album?
RL: We had a wonderful time in the studio. We were still in those days recording live, meaning we didn't overdub a bunch of stuff. We overdubbed little sound effects here and there but by and large most of that music was recorded with everybody in the studio. And everybody was having a great time, especially me.
AAJ: Was that one of your earlier exposures to electric keyboards? There are a lot of interesting synthesizers on that record...
RL: Yeah. I still had not gotten totally into electric keyboards. And once again it was Charles Stepney who said, in respect to the time and era that we were recording this music in, "Do you mind if I overdub a couple things here and there?"-electric sounds, mainly connecting the songs. You'll notice that one song will end totally, and before the other song starts, there are some sounds. He did a lot of that, in good taste, and it only made the album better.
AAJ: In the '70s, as you were moving from your traditional jazz trio work into electronic and groove-oriented music, what about those new techniques and sounds opened up and changed the music for you?
RL: Well, you know, curiosity. And I think it started with Charles Stepney. Once I saw the possibilities, I started experimenting and it was fun. [Singer/keyboardist] Stevie Wonder wrote a couple things for me for electric piano and synthesizer-"Spring High" and "Love Notes," and other things-and it was just fun experimenting with it.
I always have remained faithful and true to the acoustic piano and I don't claim to be Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock-they go whole-hog off into the electronic world and I've never done that. I love and respect what they do, but I'm so hung up on the acoustic piano, I've never strayed too far away from it.
AAJ: I realize that, as I listen to many of your '70s and '80s recordings, there is acoustic piano at the center of many of those songs.
AAJ: Was there any particular reason why Redd Holt and Eldee Young went off to form their own group? Because it seems like the music they did when they started was similar to the music you were creating together at the time, and it was doing well.
RL: We got to the point where, after being together for 17 years, or however long it was, success had spoiled us. We got that hit record and at first it was, "Wow, here we go," and then it was not more that two or three months after the big hit record that we started having personality clashes and problems. And it ceased to be fun, which is strange to go through the period of...we never had hard times and hard knocks, it was never that, but nothing nearly like the kind of money we were making when we got those hit records, "Hang On Sloopy" and "The 'In' Crowd." So personality clashes took over and if you're not having fun with what you're doing, why do it?
I think it's human nature. While we were a partnership, the same way The Supremes were a partnership and a lot of groups were a partnership, as popularity grows and one or two members become more popular (only because of radio, newspapers, interviews, etc.) and although your partnership and the money is split equally, human nature says, "Why is your name the name?" It just gets crazy. I've noticed that many groups have had that problem. Success has spoiled a lot of great groups.