Gary Lewis is happy he chose music over following in his famous father’s footsteps

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When it comes to mid-1960s pop culture, there was no greater movie actor around this time than Jerry Lewis. And there was no bigger band than the Beatles.

For Lewis’ eldest son Gary, that meant there was a fork in the road. A natural performer, he was now faced with a choice between following in his father’s footsteps or trying to sound like the boys from the Liverpool group whose music had become an inspiration.

Gary’s father was at the top of his game from the early to mid-1960s, having produced a series of blockbuster films that included “The Nutty Professor”, “The Patsy”, “The Disorderly Orderly” and “Boeing Boeing”. “But the Beatles had their own hits and a cool rock ‘n’ roll sound that 18-year-old Lewis immediately enjoyed.

For Gary, an accomplished drummer from a young age, the choice was easy.

“I realized very young that if I tried to do what my dad did I would never have my own identity and people would sit down too and say ‘well let’s see if you are as good as him, “” Lewis said during a video chat from his home in California. “I decided that I liked music better than comedy. I wasn’t planning on forming a band, but the Beatles came out and I said, ‘That’s it. It’s for me. This is what I want to do. “

Soon he and his musician friends formed the group Gary Lewis & the Playboys. Some 57 years after it all began, Gary Lewis and his band will perform at the Palace Theater in Greensburg on Wednesday. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. with Lou Christie opening.

Turns out comedy wasn’t the only thing in Lewis’s DNA. His mother was singer Patti Palmer, who performed with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and, according to Lewis, continued to sing until she was eight months pregnant with him in 1946.

“I was hearing all of this even before I was born,” Lewis said. “This is where I got my love of music and when I was very young my mom would always say, ‘Gary, come on the piano. Let’s sit down and sing a little bit. She was a great singer and I sang with her growing up.

Lewis began playing the drums at the age of five with legendary percussionist Buddy Rich, his father’s friend, teaching Gary on his frequent visits to the house for seven years.

Once he formed his band, Lewis was a rare singer-drummer. Gary’s mother funded the equipment purchases as they believed Jerry Lewis would not support the band financially. When they started booking gigs at places like Disneyland, Gary even kept it a secret that he was the famous comedian’s son, preferring to fend for himself instead.

Eventually, however, producer Snuff Garrett, who lived down the street from the Lewis family, took notice of the group. Thinking he could capitalize on Lewis’s name, he got them a recording deal.

Few could have imagined how successful this new American act would be. In 1965, at the height of the “British Invasion”, when the American pop charts were dominated by long-haired English groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits, a clean band. – cut the American children have passed them.

When Gary Lewis and the Playboys released the song “This Diamond Ring”, it rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1965, surpassing the Beatles’ record “Eight Days a Week”.

It was an amazing development, if only for the fact that Lewis and the band members had much shorter hair than their British counterparts, but not necessarily by choice.

“I was still living at home when I started recording and my dad said, ‘OK, you like rock’n’roll. It’s okay, but don’t let your hair grow like this. damn Beatles. ‘ I was still living at home, so I had to keep it short.

Meanwhile, Gary Lewis’ 10 best hits of 1965 including “Count Me In”, “She’s Just My Style”, “Everybody Loves a Clown”, “Save Your Heart For Me”, “Sure Gonna Miss Her” and “Green Grass”, several of which Lewis had co-authored with the legendary Leon Russell.

Yet his father never ended up liking what he did.

“He didn’t like rock’n’roll. He always listened to big band music from the 40s. It was his thing, ”Lewis said.

Gary Lewis & the Playboys produced more hits in 1966 and 1967. The only thing that could seemingly stop the band’s momentum was if Lewis, who was of working age, ended up being sent to Vietnam, where the war ended. intensified.

This is exactly what happened. In 1967, he was drafted into the US Army. When the letter arrived he was devastated but he did not try to get out.

“Everyone was trying to tell me, ‘Your dad can get you out of this. You can go to Canada or something, ”Lewis said. “But that just didn’t suit me. I was like, ‘Elvis did it. I will do it. I’m drafted, I’m going. That’s all.’ “

But while Lewis was abroad, the American rock scene was changing. Young Americans were turning to a much harder and more incisive sound created by artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Doors.

Gary Lewis & the Playboys toured for a while after Lewis returned from his military duties. But the demand for them was no longer there.

“There was no more work,” he said. “Snuff Garrett said, ‘There’s no more deal for you.’ Wow, (he came) fall apart, you know. “

Lewis became depressed and turned to drugs. He started self-medication with large doses of pills.

“I was trying to heal myself out of fear. ‘And now? That’s all I know. It was exactly the worst thing I could have done. It didn’t solve anything.

Lewis checked into a drug rehab center and quit his drug addiction. He ended up buying a music store in California. He sold guitars and drums and gave lessons for 12 years.

Then one day in the early 1980s, he got a phone call from an agent who told him there was a renewed demand for ’60s artists like him.

“He said, ‘I can book you 60 to 100 dates a year,’” Lewis said. “I said, ‘If you can book them, I’ll play them.’ And since 1984, this is what has been happening.

And Lewis, who has always sang in a relatively high range, said he can still hit the high notes.

“Not only can I still do it, but it’s strong and I’ve never had to drop a key. I think singing all the time makes me stronger.

Paul Guggenheimer is an editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected]


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