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BackRoom

Ramsey Lewis

The jazz pianist, 83, on life-changing hits and his impending retirement

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

The piano is my buddy, my friend—forever and ever.

I enjoy practicing almost as much as performing. Sometimes I’m sitting here practicing, and my wife will walk up to me and I’ll jump. You’re in another place. I told her I want to put bells around her ankles.

I can’t remember ever having the jitters, because I started taking lessons at 4 years old. At 9, my dad said, “OK, you’re going to start playing for the church gospel choir.” So from 9 years old to 15, I’m playing for the gospel choir. And when you play for the gospel choir, you got to bring it.

I’d come home from school, and my mom would say, “Your father says you’ve got to practice before you go out and play baseball.” But the guys were out there now, so I would go. And then one day I stayed out too long. My dad got home from work and was coming down the street with his belt off. I didn’t do that anymore.

My teacher Dorothy Mendelsohn at the Chicago Musical College was the one who made me fall in love with the piano. She’d say, “Make the piano sing” and “Listen with your inner ear.”

If you try to get into any music intellectually, you’re missing the boat. This goes for classical music, anything. You’ve got to feel it.

My trio was playing a little joint in Detroit. The next day, I got a call from Phil Chess at Chess Records. He said, “I think you guys got a hit.” This was 1965. Jazz guys didn’t have hits. He said, “The In Crowd—we can’t press ’em fast enough.” My mind was just not accepting what the hell he meant. A hit allows you to send your kids to private school. It allows you to move into a nice neighborhood. A major hit changes your way of life.

From the very beginning, I learned to get good people to represent me, so I pretty much got whatever my due was.

Audiences in the Midwest allow you to be yourself. They give you enough pats on the back, but they don’t play to your ego. In New York, you’ve got to fight for recognition. The Midwest is just kind of “Let’s see what you got.”

I don’t have a big ego. I don’t need to be stroked. That goes back to the way I was brought up. Because you play the piano and are successful, that doesn’t make you any better than the guy who does something else for a living.

I smoked cigarettes for a while, but other than that, no drugs. Except for two puffs. I don’t know how old I was when somebody said, “Here, puff on this.” I didn’t feel anything. I said, “A waste of time. And you pay for that?”

It’s in my rider that I need a nine-foot Steinway concert grand. I’ve been known not to perform because they did not have the piano. That was early on in my career. When the word got out, I never had that problem again.

To this day, people will come up to me and say, “Oh, Mr. Lewis, I loved your radio show.” For some of them, that’s all they knew me by; they didn’t know that I had a career playing the piano.

When I got on the bandstand recently in St. Louis, man, it was like heaven. The guys—we were on. We were just cookin’ and, ooh, it felt so good. We walked off the stage, and it was like, Oh boy, this is the greatest thing on God’s green earth. Something went through my mind: Do you really want to retire? Do you want to leave this? But by the time the limo got me back to the hotel, it was like, Yeah, I can’t do this anymore.

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