Ramey Lewis-Funky Serenity, Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits, Solar Wind and Sun Goddess.

Label: BGO Records.

Not many recording artists spend sixteen years signed to the same label, but bandleader, composer and pianist Ramsey Lewis had signed to Chess Records in 1956, and his band Ramsey Lewis and The Gentlemen Of Swing their debut album later on the Argo Records imprint later that year. This was the first of nineteen albums that Ramsey Lewis released on Argo Records, before moving to the Chess Records imprint Cadet Records in 1965.

Ramey Lewis went on to release fourteen studio and live albums for Cadet Records between 1965 and 1972, and enjoyed million selling singles with The In Crowd Hang On Sloopy and Wade In The Water. With three gold discs to his name, Ramsey Lewis was one of the most successful jazz pianists, and was also enjoying something that many jazz musicians craved…crossover appeal.

By 1966, Ramey Lewis’ albums were regularly charting high in the US R&B and US Jazz charts as his popularity continued to grow. However, many of Ramsey Lewis’ albums were now charting the US Billboard 200, as his music continued to find a wider audience after the success of The In Crowd, Hang On Sloopy and Wade In The Water. This triumvirate of singles had introduced Ramsey Lewis’ music to a non-jazz audience, and suddenly they were buying his albums. It looked like Ramsey Lewis had hit the musical jackpot.

Over the next few years, Ramsey Lewis’ popularity grew, and by the time he signed to Columbia Records in 1972, the thirty-seven year old pianist was one of the most prolific and successful jazz artists of his generation. Ramsey Lewis had released thirty-three albums for Argo Records and Cadet Records by the time he signed to Columbia was one of the most successful artists on Chess Records’ roster. However, his time at Chess Records was at an end, and a new chapter began at Columbia.

Upendo Ni Pamoja.

Later in 1972, Ramsey Lewis released his Columbia debut Upendo Ni Pamoja which was a trio recording that featured drummer and percussionist Morris Jennings and bassist Cleveland Eaton. They worked their way through eight cover versions and Cleveland Eaton’s Trilogy of Morning, The Nite Before and Eternal Peace. It was part of album that received mixed reviews from critics, who believed that the album was a couple of tracks from being an essential album from Ramsey Lewis. He was hoping that his next album would fare better. 

It wasn’t long before Ramsey Lewis began work his next album Funky Serenity which has been remastered and reissued alongside Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits, Solar Wind and Sun Goddess by BGO Records. These four albums are a reminder of Ramsey Lewis’ music between 1973 and 1974 as the musical chameleon continued to reinvent himself.

Funky Serenity.

After the mixed reviews of Upendo Ni Pamoja, Ramsey Lewis was determined to make an impression with his next album Funky Serenity. It would eventually feature a mixture of cover versions and songs penned by Ramsey Lewis, Cleveland Eaton and Morris Jennings. This included What It Is!, Serene Funk and Dreams. Violinist and percussionist Eddie Green who was drafted in to play on Funky Serenity contributed Kufanya Mapenzi (Making Love) and My Love For You. They were joined by covers of Homer Banks, Carl Hampton and Raymond Jackson’s (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right, Justin Hayward’s Nights In White Satin, Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s Betcha by Golly, Wow and Ralph MacDonald and William Salter’s Where Is The Love. These nine tracks were recorded by a quartet which was produced by Ramsey Lewis.

When recording of Funky Serenity began, drummer, percussionist and conga player Morris Jennings was joined by bassist Cleveland Eaton and Ramsey Lewis who played piano, electric piano and harpsichord. Violinist and percussionist Eddie Green was the final member of the quartet that recorded Funky Serenity.

When critics heard Funky Serenity, it was well received by critics who called the album an essential album from Ramsey Lewis. It was regarded as a much stronger album and  Ramsey Lewis’ Columbia debut, and finds him combining elements of blues, funk, gospel, pop, soul and even briefly, a hint of avant-garde. However, Funky Serenity was a reminder of why Ramsey Lewis was one of the most successful jazz pianists of his generation.

Kufanya Mapenzi (Making Love) sets the bar high on Funky Serenity before the ballad, If Loving You Is Wrong is given a jazzy makeover.  Very different is the gospel-tinged and funky What It Is!, which is a reminder of  Ramsey Lewis’ mid-sixties classic sound. My Love For You is a dreamy, mid-tempo ballad that ebbs and flows, before giving way to Nights In White Satin, where Ramsey Lewis drops the tempo and Ed Greene’s violin adds a brief avant-garde influence as they try to reinvent a classic. It’s all change on Serene Funk which is slow, bluesy and funky, as Ramsey Lewis pounds at the electric piano and plays a starring role. Initially, Dreams is atmospheric, eerie and otherworldly before heading in the direction of funk. This leaves just covers of Betcha by Golly, Wow and Where Is The Love which ensures that Funky Serenity closes on a high.

Buoyed by the reviews of Funky Serenity, an edited version of Kufanya Mapenzi (Making Love) was released as a single, but failed to trouble the charts. To make matters worse, when Funky Serenity was released in 1973, it failed to chart in the US Billboard 200 and US R&B charts. However, Funky Serenity reached number seven in the US Jazz charts, which offered a small crumb of comfort to executives at Columbia.

Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits.

After Funky Serenity’s failure to crossover, Ramsey Lewis came up with an interesting concept for his third album for Columbia. He wanted to reinvent some of his biggest and best known hits that he released on Argo and Cadet Records. This included his three biggest hits The In Crowd, Hang On Sloopy and Wade In The Water which would featured on Ramsey Lewis’ Newly Recorded All-Time Non-Stop Golden Hits, which later, became known as Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits.

Ramsey Lewis chose a total of nine tracks, which also included Blues For The Night Owl, Hi-Heel Sneakers, Carmen, Song Of Delilah, Slipping Into Darkness and Something You Got. They were joined by the three million selling singles The In Crowd, Hang On Sloopy and Wade In The Water, which were recorded later in 1973.

This time around, it was just a trio of drummer and percussionist Morris Jennings was joined by Cleveland Eaton on bass and standup bass and Ramsey Lewis who played piano and electric piano. Taking charge of production as the trio set about reinventing some of his best know songs was Ramsey Lewis.

When critics heard Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits, they were keen to hear the new versions of his three million selling singles. They didn’t have long to wait with a joyous, Caribbean influenced version of Hang On Sloopy opening the album. Wade In The Water the rhythm section proving an almost rocky backdrop to Ramey Lewis’ piano as he stayed true to his 1966 soul-jazz version. There’s also a funkified   version of Hi-Heel Sneakers and a remake of Ramsey Lewis’ first funk hit Slipping Into Darkness. However, closing the album was a The In Crowd  where a rocky rhythm section provides the backdrop for Ramsey Lewis who plays piano and harpsichord and closes the album on a high.

Upon the release of Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits later in 1974, the album sneaked into the US Billboard 200 and 198 and reached a disappointing fifty in the US R&B charts. However, at least Ramsey Lewis was back in the charts, and could begin work on a new album.

Solar Wind.

Solar Wind was a much more ambitious album from Ramsey Lewis, as he looked forward, rather than back. To do this, Ramsey Lewis added synths to his musical arsenal, and brought onboard some additional musicians.

The core band featured drummer and percussionist Morris Jennings, Cleveland Eaton on bass and standup bass and Ramsey Lewis who time around, switched between keyboards, ARP and Moog. They were joined by drummers Carl Mars and Ron Capone, guitarist Steve Cropper, percussionist Calvin Barnes and James L. Herson on Moog. One of the new additions to Ramsey Lewis’ band wrote three of the tracks on Solar Wind.

This was Steve Cropper who joined forces with Carl Marsh to write Sweet and Tender You, Solar Wind and Love For A Day. Meanwhile Ramsey Lewis and Cleveland Eaton wrote Jamaican Marketplace, which was joined by five cover versions. This included Jim Seals and Dash Crofts’ Hummingbird and Summer Breeze, Sonny Rollins’ The Everywhere Calypso, Paul Simon’s Loves Me Like A Rock and Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Come Down in Time. These nine tracks were recorded by the extended band in Chicago and Memphis, and released in early 1974, with Ramsey Lewis, Cleveland Eaton and Steve Cropper all receiving production credits.

Critics on hearing Solar Wind were impressed by Ramsey Lewis’ third outing for Columbia, which found him moving away from the trio sound that served him well during the fifties and sixties. With a little help from his friends who were part of an expanded band, Ramsey Lewis had recorded a carefully crafted album that featured elements of jazz, funk, R&B and soul.

Opening Solar Wind was  the uptempo Sweet and Tender You which was recorded in Memphis and was one of three tracks produced by Steve Cropper. Sonically and stylistically the track references Ramsey Lewis’ classic mid-sixties recordings for Chess Records. After this, the understated, but familiar strains of Hummingbird are a welcome addition, before giving way to Solar Wind, which os another slice of R&B that was made in Memphis but features a Motown backbeat. Ramsey Lewis heads to the Caribbean on Jamaican Marketplace and The Everywhere Calypso, before returning to familiar territory with three cover versions. There’s the jazz-funk of Summer Breeze, while gospel and soul-jazz combine on Loves Me Like A Rock and a pop-rock version of Come Down In Time. Closing Solar Wind was the filmic funk of Love For A Day.

After being well received by critics, Ramsey Lewis and executives at Columbia had high hopes for Solar Wind. However, upon its release in 1974 the album sunk without trace and Ramsey Lewis was back to square one. 

Sun Goddess.

During his first two years at Columbia, Ramsey Lewis had released four albums, and was back in the studio working on his fifth album Sun Goddess. Although record labels were much more patient and supportive of an artist in the early seventies, deep down, Ramsey Lewis knew that there was a limit to a records label’s patience.  Eventually, they would expect him to deliver a successful album, and preferably sooner, rather than later.

When Ramsey Lewis began recording his fifth album for Columbia in Chicago, he had already written Love Song, Jungle Strut, Tambura and Gemini Rising. He had also decided to cover the Stevie Wonder song Living For The City. However, deep down, Ramsey Lewis knew that this wasn’t enough to complete the album. 

Despite that, Ramsey Lewis was keen to lay down tracks, and played played acoustic and electric guitar, electric piano, piano, string machine, synths and Wurlitzer. Joining him was his rhythm section of  drummer and percussionist Morris Jennings and bassist Cleveland Eaton. During one of the sessions, Ramsey Lewis received a phone call from his old friend Maurice White, who had good news for his old boss.

Maurice White had part of Ramsey Lewis band between 1966 and 1969, and then founded  Earth, Wind and Fire. By 1974, Earth, Wind and Fire who were on the cusp of commercial success and critical acclaim. They had just topped the US R&B charts with their fifth album Open Our Eyes, and had recently been opening for Sly and The Family. However, they were no longer the force they once were, and  Earth, Wind and Fire had stolen the show. As Maurice White told Ramsey Lewis this, he also mentioned that he and Charles Stepney had written a song that was going to be huge, bigger than The In Crowd, and he wanted him to hear Hot Dawgit.

The next day, Ramsey Lewis and his band were joined by Maurice White and members Earth, Wind and Fire, who were flying from  New York to LA, but diverted to Chicago to record Hot Dawgit. Gradually, the song took that Maurice White had such high hopes for started to take shape over the next few hours. However, this wasn’t the only song Maurice White offered to Ramsey Lewis.

Maurice White told Ramsey Lewis about the song which he had written with Jon Lind. However, there were two problems with the nascent song: it didn’t have lyrics for the melody or a title. However, as Maurice White described the mid-tempo song Brazilian R&B song and on the spur of the moment, decided that they would sing: “we-yo.” With that, the song which had a Latin-tinged groove, a stunning tenor saxophone solo from Don Myrick and vocals that came courtesy of Maurice White and Phillip Bailey, whose contribution was elegiac and jazzy. Gradually, the song started to take shape, and by the end of the session Ramsey Lewis and Maurice White had co-produced two tracks.

The remainder of the album was co-produced by Ramsey Lewis and Teo Macero. Together with the help of a few musicians who were drafted in by Ramsey Lewis, the album that eventually became Sun Goddess was completed.

Critics on hearing Sun Goddess realised that this was a game-changer for Ramsey Lewis and could transform his career. Commercially, it had stalled at Columbia, but Sun Goddess which featured everything from funk, jazz, jazz-funk, Latin and soul was an album that oozed quality.

That was the case from the Brazilian R&B  of the album opener Sun Goddess, to a stunning cover of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City where strings and horns are deployed and play their part in the song’s sound and success. The mid-tempo Love Song closed the first side, before Jungle Strut heads in the direction of jazz-funk and Hot Dawgit is a glorious fusion of blues and funk, where chants feature and effects are used to good effect throughout the track. Equally  funky is Tambura which sounds as if it belongs on a Blaxploitation album. Gemini Rising closes Sun Goddess and is a much more experimental and progressive track. Initially, it’s stop start, before funk and bebop combine on a track where synths, strings and a walking bass combine to ensure Sun Goddess ends on a high.

Before the release of Sun Goddess, Hot Dawgit was released as the lead single, but stalled at fifty in the US Billboard 100 and sixty-one in the US R&B charts. This didn’t augur well for the release of Sun Goddess, which it was hoped would transform Ramsey Lewis’ fortunes.

When Sun Goddess, was released later in 1974, it featured the iconic album cover that was photographed by Herb Breuer and featured Susan Leigh Scott. The future classic album reached number twelve in the US Billboard 200 and topped the US R&B and US Jazz charts, and after selling in excess of 500,000 copies, Sun Goddess was certified gold. Sun Goddess was a game-changer for Ramsey Lewis.

Buoyed by the success of the chart-topping album, Sun Goddess was chosen  as the second single, but only reached forty-four in the US Billboard 100, twenty in the US R&B charts and five in the US Billboard Disco Singles charts. Still, Sun Goddess, which nowadays is considered a genre classic, was Ramsey Lewis’ the most successful of the first five albums he released at Columbia.

Forty-four years after the release of Sun Goddess, BGO Records have has been remastered and reissued Funky Serenity, Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits, Solar Wind and Sun Goddess which are available as a two CD set. These four albums are a reminder of Ramsey Lewis’ music between 1973 and 1974 as the musical chameleon continued to reinvent himself and explore new musical ideas.

While Funky Serenity wasn’t a particularly successful album, it’s regarded as one of the finest albums of Ramsey Lewis’ time at Columbia. After that, the musical chameleon reinvented some of his best known and successful songs on Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits, before releasing the underrated Solar Wind in 1974. It found Ramsey Lewis using synths for the first time on Solar Wind, which brought a new dimension to his music on this oft-overlooked album. However, it’s the genre classic Sun Goddess that is the highlight of BGO Records’ two CD set, and features Ramsey Lewis at the peak of his powers, during what was the thirty-ninth album of a glittering career, that began in 1956, when the bandleader, composer and pianist released his debut Ramsey Lewis and The Gentlemen Of Swing. 

Ramey Lewis-Funky Serenity, Ramsey Lewis’ Golden Hits, Solar Wind and Sun Goddess.

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