Ramsey Lewis celebrates 50 years of his breakout success with ‘The In Crowd’

Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. Fifty years ago, the Ramsey Lewis Trio scored a breakout hit with its recording of the Dobie Gray song “The In Crowd.” CREDIT: Michael Coakes.)

WASHINGTON — 1965 was a watershed for jazz. The avant-garde revolution reached its apex that year, pushing veterans such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane in experimental new directions as young insurgents such as Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler started making their mark.

Meanwhile, a more populist group of Chicagoans congregated in a basement nightclub on Washington’s U Street and created a one-song counterinsurgency.

The group was the Ramsey Lewis Trio, and the song, “The In Crowd,” was a cover of a pop hit by singer Dobie Gray. The trio’s groove-intensive version, recorded at Bohemian Caverns, became a runaway hit that summer and even bested Gray’s original. It rose to No. 2 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 5 on its Hot 100. Next week, pianist Lewis returns to Washington (Blues Alley this time) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the record that made him famous, with shows April 9-12.

“It was never a millstone,” Lewis, now 79, says of the tune he was forced to revisit at every gig for a half-century. “I still play it now, and it reminds me of good times.”

- FWBP Digital Partners -

“Best thing that ever happened to us,” agrees drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt, 83, now retired and living in Chicago. (Bassist Eldee Young died in 2007.) “Any of us. All of us.”

“The In Crowd” has proven remarkably durable, still bringing in royalties for Lewis, Holt and Young’s estate. It was long a staple of oldies radio, featured on several film soundtracks and was used as background music on NPR’s “This American Life.” “It’s got a nice groove, and it’s nicely played by a well-integrated trio — they were very tight,” says jazz critic and historian Gary Giddins of the record’s appeal. “It’s got a hook.”

As a pop confection, “The In Crowd” is hard to resist. Young and Holt maintain (but speed up) the Motown-esque rhythm of Gray’s original, and Lewis boogies on two repeats of the melody before sliding into a solo. By jazz standards, the solo is a slight one: The pianist vamps on the groove, bangs out chords on the accents. But it’s got undeniable energy, and swagger to match: “Walk it home!” someone shouts as Lewis gets moving.

It wasn’t the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s first hit. They had a minor success in 1964 with another soulful groover called “Something You Got” (also recorded at Bohemian Caverns).

- Advertisement -

Nor were they newcomers: Lewis, Young and Holt had known each other since high school, jamming together on Chicago’s West Side. The trio — an equal partnership, despite bearing Lewis’s name — began in earnest in 1956. That year they made their debut record, “Ramsey Lewis and his Gentle-Men of Swing,” for Chess Records’ subsidiary label Argo.

As the title suggests, the Ramsey Lewis Trio initially played in the gentler “cool jazz” style of the period. “We were really into that Modern Jazz Quartet, Chico Hamilton, soft, subtle thing,” Holt acknowledges. “But I was the funky guy of the group! I was the one that liked them R&B songs!”

Holt’s more soulful tastes gradually reoriented the band in his direction.

By the early 1960s, they had built a following on the East Coast, in part, says Lewis, by including a “fun song” in every performance. “We had all this serious stuff, Ellington tunes and originals and pieces from the Great American Songbook,” he recalls. “We had to give the audience a fun song, something that wasn’t so serious, and would let them dance and tap their feet and clap along to the beat.”

- Advertisement -

This was the spirit in which “Something You Got” had been released, in October 1964, on the trio’s album “Live at Bohemian Caverns” — their biggest seller to that point. Soul-infused “funky” jazz was having a moment of popularity. A year before, Mongo Santamaria had reached the top 10 with a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” Then, just after “Something You Got” had faded, Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” hit so big that it was adapted for TV commercials.

That, combined with the trio’s return booking at the Caverns in May 1965, prompted them to record a follow-up live album there.

They just needed a new, fun song. The morning of the first show — Thursday, May 13 — Lewis, Young and Holt were sitting in a small coffee shop near the Howard Theatre, trying to decide on one. Their waitress heard the conversation, in a moment so life-altering that Lewis (and Holt) still remembers her name 50 years later.

“Nettie Gray, our waitress, said, ‘Well, what about “The In Crowd,” by Dobie Gray?'” Lewis says. “Redd and Eldee said: ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a good one! I know that!’ I did not. So they put it on the jukebox, and I liked it.”

Gray’s version of “The In Crowd” (written by Billy Page) was a pop-soul production that unapologetically aped the Motown Sound. It was characterized by a strong beat, bright horns and Gray’s smooth shout of the lyric (“I’m in with the in crowd/I go where the in crowd goes”). They quickly worked out and rehearsed an instrumental arrangement.

Even so, they nearly skipped it when playing before the sold-out crowd at Bohemian Caverns that night. They were about to play their blues theme to close out the first set when Holt prodded the pianist. “(I said,) ‘Hey, man! Let’s play “The In Crowd,” Jack! Hook it up!’ ” the drummer recalls.

“We never actually got to the theme that night,” says Lewis. “They wouldn’t let us off the bandstand, ‘The In Crowd’ had gone over so big. They were clapping, hooting and hollering and cheering.”

It’s on the record. From the beginning, the room claps along to Holt and Young’s tight groove, with scattered shouts and whistles. When Lewis’ solo begins, those shouts are everywhere. Each pause in his vamping gives rise to whoops, or calls of “Hey now! Work it, baby!” At one point, spectators simply begin bellowing the name of the song: ” ‘In Crowd!’ ‘In Crowd,’ man!”

“I had such a good time that night,” says Holt.

But a good time didn’t prepare the trio for when the “In Crowd” album was released in July. They were performing in Detroit when Lewis took a call from Leonard Chess. “He said, ‘It looks like you have a hit,’ ” says Lewis. “We’d been selling four, five, six thousand copies of records up to that time, so I said, ‘Well, what’s a hit?’ He said, ‘No, a real hit. It’s coming off the shelves — people are buying your album the way they would buy a single, and the radio is playing “The In Crowd” right off the album!'”

Argo quickly pressed a single, which sold half a million copies: a gold record. It sold so well, in fact, that the label (which had changed its name to Cadet Records) delayed the next Ramsey Lewis Trio album for fear of cannibalizing the hit. “We were doing R&B, pop, rock-and-roll, jazz radio. Across the board,” Lewis recalls. “Even the Huntley-Brinkley Report talked about the phenomenon of this new jazz record.’ “

A commercial phenomenon — accessible even by soul-jazz standards — that arose from an increasingly noncommercial, even anti-commercial music scene. For traditional jazz fans in 1965, that might have been the point.

“Audiences were rebelling, quite consciously, against the direction jazz was moving in,” says Giddins. “The avant-garde was challenging stuff that took a serious effort to listen to and unpack. The music market was more open at that time to different styles, but even so, the audience wasn’t looking for any improvisational complexity or anything challenging — anything that they couldn’t listen to with their feet.”

The Ramsey Lewis Trio were suddenly stars — and on the beginning of a hot streak. Before 1965 was over, they would score two more big hits with hastily released covers of the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy” and the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

The trio itself, however, was a victim of its own success. At the beginning of 1966, Lewis left to form a new trio as a leader, continuing on a pop-jazz course with a mix of originals and covers. Young and Holt hired pianist Don Walker and became the Young-Holt Trio, pursuing straight soul. (They had a Top 40 hit that year with “Wack Wack,” and as Young-Holt Unlimited, hit No. 3 in 1968 with “Soulful Strut.”) But both bands cited “The In Crowd” as determining their musical direction, and both continued to play it.

For Lewis, especially, whose name was on the 1965 record, “The In Crowd” became a nightly routine. He kept it fresh by finding new ways to play the song, new arrangements and more substantial improvisations. “We really only play the first 15 or 16 bars, so people will recognize it. And then we change it up. It doesn’t sound anything like the record anymore.”

A YouTube link to Ramsey Lewis and ‘The In Crowd’