Ramsey Lewis Celebrates the Music of the Fab Four with Posthumous CD "The Beatles Songbook," His First Solo Piano Recording, Due Jan. 6

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Legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis, an NEA Jazz Master and multiple Grammy winner, introduced a monthly Salon Series of solo piano recitals at his Chicago home during the pandemic lockdown. On his new album, "The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One," Lewis focuses on Beatles repertoire recorded at the Salon Series and chose these tracks for release before his September 12 death at 87.

Ramsey Lewis's new CD, "The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One"

[The Beatles] have a catalog of songs that can stand up as standards that are fun to play and fun to solo on. I don't know any other pop act whose music has been recorded across the board like this.

The late, legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis offers an intimate, familiar affair with his solo piano recording "The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One," to be released January 6 on Steele Records. This selection of tunes by the iconic songwriting duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, approved for release by Lewis, is also a surprising DIY project, created during livestreamed sessions in Lewis’s own Chicago home.

Lewis, of course, is no stranger to covering of postwar pop music. He had a smash 1965 hit with his cover of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd,” which he followed up with a successful version of “Hang on Sloopy.” He has even assayed the Beatles’ catalog before, scoring a minor hit with “A Hard Day’s Night” and even releasing "Mother Nature’s Son," an homage to the Beatles’ White Album, in 1968.

He was a latecomer, however, to unaccompanied piano performance. Until recent years, Lewis had almost never performed as a soloist. But the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to perform any other way, and during the lockdowns Lewis initiated a series of monthly webcasts called “The Saturday Salon.” Always an artist with a populist touch, Lewis included the Beatles’ songs in his webcasts because it was music that, like his own, had demonstrated universal appeal.

“They have a catalog of songs that can stand up as standards that are fun to play and fun to solo on,” he said. “Their music has been recorded by symphonies and orchestras, rock bands, jazz bands. I don’t know any other pop act whose music has been recorded across the board like this.”

Even with their exhaustive coverage, Lewis is able to unlock new secrets and breathe new life into the tunes. His “And I Love Her” explores the possibilities of both the song’s harmonies and its famous four-note riff. “Rocky Raccoon” gets a beautiful reharmonization. Lewis plays up the gospel roots of “Hey Jude,” and in the ballads “Blackbird” and “Golden Slumbers” he finds previously unknown reservoirs of the blues.

Lifted directly from the 2020 livestream audio, "The Beatles Songbook" sounds like the home recording it is. But that sound is a feature, not a bug: It amplifies the intimacy of the performance, as if we were hearing a message from a friend, and reminds us that to the end, Lewis was able to work in any circumstances and create great art.

Ramsey Lewis was born May 27, 1935 in Chicago. He began playing piano at the age of four, learning classical from teachers, gospel from the church, and jazz from his father’s record collection. Through Wells High School and into Chicago Musical College he intended to become a concert classical pianist, but fate intervened: While working at a record store, Lewis met bassist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt, fellow jazz lovers who joined with him to form the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

In 1965, after a decade of working together both on bandstands and on Leonard and Phil Chess’s Argo Records, Lewis and the trio achieved a surprise top 10 pop hit with their version of “The In Crowd,” recorded live in Washington DC. The record made Lewis a star, which he compounded with subsequent hits “Hang on Sloopy,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “Wade in the Water.” After the trio disbanded, Lewis carried on with new ensembles and continued pursuing pop-jazz success, surfacing on the pop charts again with members of Earth, Wind & Fire on 1974’s "Sun Goddess." His popular success continued into the 1980s and ‘90s, when he formed the popular crossover group Urban Knights.

In the 21st century, Lewis became a revered elder statesman of jazz, finding a career renaissance as a composer, broadcaster, educator, and artistic director of the Ravinia Jazz Festival. Lewis was awarded the NEA Jazz Masters fellowship in 2007. He spent his final year working with journalist Aaron Cohen on his memoir, "Gentleman of Jazz" (to be published May 2023 by Blackstone Publishing), before passing away at his Chicago home on September 12, 2022.

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