It happened one summer night at Basin Street West in San Francisco. The Ramsey Lewis Trio, fronted by the late and esteemed keyboard virtuoso from Chicago, were in the house. The audience were primed, and so was the recording equipment. That evening, an excellent and intimate live album was created, and named after a Motown classic. Lewis’ stylish reimagining of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” preceded the LP as a single and entered the Billboard Hot 100 on September 23, 1967.
Lewis’ compadres on stage that night made for an impressive-looking trio, as both other players went on to great acclaim in their later careers. Bassist Cleveland Eaton would front his own band and records, from 1973 onwards, finding much success in the funk and disco fields and later working with the Count Basie Orchestra.
A future star drummer
The drummer, meanwhile, was none other than Maurice White, who had taken over from Isaac “Red” Holt in 1966, when Holt had left to form Young-Holt Unlimited with bassist Eldee Young. It hardly need saying that White later became one of the most important group leaders in soul music, as frontman with the great Earth, Wind & Fire.
In terms of their recording career, Lewis and the trio may have been chiefly an album act. But they had tasted substantial singles recognition among both R&B and pop audiences. In 1965, their celebrated refit of Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” rose to No.2 on the soul chart and No.5 pop, and was swiftly followed by a new version of the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy,” at Nos.6 and 11 respectively.
Listen to Ramsey Lewis among the 50 best jazz pianists of all time.
As Lewis dropped the trio name to record in solely his own, the validation continued with another of his signatures, “Wade In The Water.” That No.3 R&B 45 went to No.19 on the Hot 100. The pianist’s mellifluous and distinctive approach could, it seemed, be turned to almost any contemporary track, as he would later prove by, improbably, taking a rendition of The Beatles‘ “Julia” into the soul Top 40 in 1969. It wasn’t his first visit to Liverpool, either, having had a Top 30 pop single with “A Hard Day’s Night” back in 1966.
Dancing towards an album
Lewis’ take on “Dancing In The Street” didn’t make the soul listings, but it entered the Hot 100 at No.92, in the week that the Box Tops climbed to No.1 with “The Letter.” The Motown re-do didn’t last long, peaking at No.84 in a four-week run, but it also became a Top 40 success on the Adult Contemporary chart and paved the way for the album of the same name.
On October 28, and featuring other assured covers such as “You Don’t Know Me” and “What Now My Love,” the Dancing In The Street live album entered the all-genre LP chart, rising to No.59 in a 16-week run. It spent 10 weeks on the soul countdown for Lewis and co, peaking at No.16.