Dave Lewis was the singularly most significant figure on the Pacific Northwest's nascent rhythm & blues scene in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1955 he'd helped found Seattle's first notable teenage doo-wop vocal group (the Five Checks), by 1956 his Dave Lewis Combo (as progenitors of what would become known as the "Original Northwest Sound") began establishing themselves as the region's most musically influential ensemble. Then in the early 1960s the Dave Lewis Trio's infectious electric-organ-based instrumental compositions were fondly embraced by fans and fellow musicians -- including young Jimmy (aka "Jimi") Hendrix -- and after subsequently being recorded by such 1960s Northwest rock 'n' roll luminaries as the Kingsmen, Dynamics, Viceroys, Counts, Courtmen, Chosen Few, and Don and the Goodtimes, the tunes were firmly established as classic regional standards. Lewis went on to become an early inductee into the Northwest Area Music Associations' Hall of Fame in 1989.
Inspired by Quincy and Ray
Born in Texas, David Eugene Lewis, and his family (including twin sister, Eunice), were part of a sizeable migration of African Americans who came to Washington State seeking work in the wartime years of the early-1940s. Settling first into the segregated Sinclair Heights housing projects in the Navy port town of Bremerton, one of the Lewis's new neighbors was the Jones family whose teenaged son, Quincy, was a budding trumpeter. Quincy welcomed the opportunity to take a few music lessons from Dave's father, David Lewis Sr., an accomplished amateur guitarist.
Both families eventually moved across Puget Sound to Seattle's Central Area neighborhood -- the Joneses at 410 22nd Avenue, and the Lewises at 128 20th Avenue E -- where David Sr. (who held two jobs: one as a fabricator at Boeing and another in the Esquire Barber Shop at 2227 E. Madison Street) tried to interest his son in the guitar. But it was the piano playing of his mother, Bertha Lewis, that captivated him. Lewis was further inspired, he once said, by the formative experience of hanging outside the backdoor of a neighborhood nightclub -- Seattle's legendary Old Rocking Chair (404-1/2 12th Avenue S) -- and hearing the pre-fame "Genius of Soul," Ray Charles, who was then (ca. 1948-1950) still performing in town.
Over the next few years Lewis honed his singing and piano-playing skills and then around 1955 he and some newfound school pals heard about Edmund Meany Jr. High's seasonal talent show and threw together a doo-wop vocal group, the Five Checks -- which also included Ronnie Height, Henry Rollins, Larry Lombard, and George Griffin. The checkered-shirt-clad Five Checks got the chance to perform for various pep rallies and other assemblies at schools all across town -- and, thusly did a lot of Seattle kids get their first exposure to live R&B music.
The Dave Lewis Combo
A couple years later, while at Garfield High School, Lewis (piano) and Griffin (drums) reorganized as a band by adding Barney Hilliard and J. B. Allen (dueling saxes), Jack Grey (upright bass), and Al Aquino (guitar). The Dave Lewis Combo started off playing smalltime YMCA and PTA sock-hops and house parties. But then Seattle's Palomar Theater (1300 3rd Avenue) began promoting matinee R&B shows for the younger set and the Combo got hired to open shows for touring stars like Sugar Pie DeSanto, Sugar Chile Robinson, Nellie Lutcher, and the pioneering R&B organist, "Wild" Bill Davis.
This was all during an era prior to Seattle's two racially segregated musicians' unions (the white's AFM No. 76 and the black's AFM No. 493) having merged on January 14, 1958, and so it was a significant breakthrough for the young African American band to get such gigs in the downtown turf then claimed by No. 76. But, in fact, as the Combo's popularity skyrocketed, they found themselves getting invited to play at all sorts of dances and shows in the "white areas" including in Bellevue and at the fraternities located just north of the University of Washington.
The Union bosses at No. 76 must have been growing frustrated with this situation and things finally came to a head one night when the Combo was booked to perform at the premier north-end dancehall, Dick Parker's Ballroom (17001 Aurora Avenue). Since the old roadhouse's opening in 1930 it had been a mainstay dancehall for Local No. 76 acts including orchestras led by Frankie Roth and Jackie Souders. Management there was more socially enlightened than others around town, but after they began advertising a dance with the Combo somebody tipped off No. 76. The white musicians' local quickly leaned on Parkers to cancel the show.
And that was what caused Parker's to finally defy its longtime "understanding" with Local No. 76: Lewis himself personally recalled witnessing the hall's manager respond to this pressure. In a heated telephone call he informed those union agents that if they didn't back off it would be the end of any further No. 76 gigs there. Ever. So, that gig went well and the racial barrier had been decisively broken.
Northwest's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band
By the summer of 1956 the Combo was being hailed as "The Northwest's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band" and it began getting hired as the opening act for the Northwest leg of tours by those rock 'n' roll pioneers: Bill Haley and his Comets -- and eventually, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Platters, Ike and Tine Turner, the Drifters, Roy Orbison, and Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps. These Rock And Roll Jamboree gigs were held in rural dancehalls and various armories and ballrooms from Yakima to Spokane, from Bellingham to Portland.
A favorite spot for these bands was always Olympia's fabled Evergreen Ballroom -- a hall that, along with Seattle's Eagles Auditorium (7th Avenue and Union Street), was one of the tour-stops for the R&B singer Richard Berry when he was promoting his new hit, "Louie Louie," here in 1957. In Berry's wake, the Combo quickly adopted the tune into its own set list -- a momentous move that helped establish it as the Northwest's signature rock 'n' roll song.
Doin' the Birdland
Upon graduating from Franklin High School in 1957, Dave Lewis, got his combo hired as the house-band at Seattle's hippest R&B room, the Birdland (2203 E Madison Street) -- a room near his father's shop and that he'd been sneaking into since a lad. It was at this Central Area venue that the Dave Lewis Combo really became established as the center of an increasingly vibrant teen-R&B scene. By now the combo's members were gaining recognition for their individual talents as well as the ensemble's overall power. Lewis won fans for his singing, playing, arranging, and bandleader skills while Griffin brought mad drumming skills from his hometown of New Orleans, the sax duo of Allen and Hilliard killed, and newcomers, Bud Brown (guitar) and Chuck Whittaker (electric bass) added a serious musical depth to the mix. The rockin' jazz/blues bag that the Combo explored over up until late-1961 clearly laid the foundation for the emerging "Northwest Sound" -- a fact confirmed by members of subsequent contributor bands including: the Frantics, Adventurers, Playboys, Rocking Kings, Continentals, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and the Wailers.
Birdland (1955-1964) was beloved by the community for the good times and great music it fostered, and as a happenin' "after-hours" room it became a legendary magnet for many off-hour musicians -- both traveling stars and local players (including doo-wop groups like the Barons, Four Pearls, and Gallahads) who'd already finished their gigs across town and wanted to hang out or jam. Lewis was a masterful leader, pacing the show and graciously welcoming guests onstage to participate. As a result there are countless stories of memorable nights in the room -- and Lewis clearly recalled the times when the Rocking Kings' young guitarist, Jimmy ("Jimi") Hendrix, stepped up, plugged in, and drove the dancers from the floor with his unorthodox and painfully loud musicality.
For the Record
By 1959 the Combo -- now featuring Jerry Allen (guitar) and sax-man Carlos Ward (ex-Playboys) -- felt ready to cut a record and they opted to book a session at one of the town's two or three viable studios: Joe Boles' Custom Recording in West Seattle. Emerging with two instrumentals on tape -- "Barney's Tune"/ "How Deep Is The Ocean?" -- the band lucked upon a new local label, Northgate Records, who issued the songs as a single around March 1959. Unfortunately, nobody there had the first clue regarding promotion and -- other than some enthusiastic airings on KFKF by Seattle's pioneering African American DJ, Bob Summerise -- and the record sank without trace.
In late 1961 -- and anticipating the upcoming work opportunities that would accompany the 1962 Seattle World's Fair -- Lewis finally disbanded his old Combo to start anew with a fresh nightclub-oriented quartet. Retaining Allen on guitar, Lewis added bassist, Jim Manolides (ex-Frantics), and drummer, Don "Candido" Mallory (ex-Don Mallory Combo), and they took over the Frantics' former house-band gig at the most prominent downtown jazz and R&B club, Dave's Fifth Avenue (112-16 5th Avenue N) where for months on end they attracted standing-room-only crowds of fairgoers and locals alike. Meanwhile around February 1962, Seattle's Seafair Records belatedly issued a Boles-recorded Combo single -- "Candido"/ "R.C. Untwistin'" -- comprising two excellent instrumentals: the former dubbed with Mallory's "street name," the latter a Twist Era tribute to Lewis' boyhood idol, Ray Charles.
Although that 45 failed to stir up much radio action, it was about one month later, interestingly enough, when Seafair's sister label, Bolo Records, scored a huge regional hit with Lewis' stunning composition, "J.A.J." -- another instrumental that he'd named after what he described as his "flaky" former guitarist, "Jive Ass Jerry" Allen.
It was in late-1962 that Lewis moved up from his electric Wurlitzer piano to the Hammond b-3 organ, a move that would inspire scores of other area bands to make the same switch -- one that would directly impact the evolution of the "Northwest Sound." Around that same time he pared down to a three-piece by joining with guitar ace, Joe Johansen (ex-Adventurers), and drummer, Dickey Enfield (ex-Frank Roberts Four) -- and the Dave Lewis Trio recorded a few tunes at Boles' studio, which got the attention of Jerry Dennon at Seattle's Jerden Records.
Though Dennon would (within a few months) gain notoriety for giving the world the Kingsmen's infamous "Louie Louie," his challenge in getting the radio industry behind the Trio's new single -- "David's Mood (Part 2)" / "David's Mood (Part 3)" -- would prove quite daunting. Although the tunes seemed attractive enough -- they were both melodic organ-led instrumentals nakedly based on the regionally popular "Louie Louie" groove -- initially only the new and tiny R&B station, KZAM-FM, chose to support it.
"David's Mood (Part 2)" in particular, however, had a very subtle mojo about it, and when area teens flooded the region's AM giant, KJR, with requests to air it, the station was finally persuaded to test the tune. And with that breakthrough, Lewis scored his first of several smash regional hits. Dennon acted swiftly, getting the tune on additional trend-setting stations and that action led to a deal with Herb Alpert's big-time Hollywood-based label, A&M Records.
Little Green Thing
In the spring of 1964, Dennon took the trio in to Kearney Barton's Audio Recording studio (170 Denny Way) and those sessions resulted in a hot new single, "Little Green Thing." Named after one of KJR DJ Lan Roberts's many inane buzzword phrases, the tune debuted on the station and became such a strong regional hit -- it was even highlighted by Dick Clark on American Bandstand -- that A&M issued an entire album. That Little Green Thing LP -- the first of three for the trio -- fairly well represented their typical nightclub set: a mix of pop classics and outstanding originals like the ultra-funky "Lip Service," which features Johansen's sublime guitar-work.
In the winter of 1966 the Trio added Dean Hodges on drums, and Jerden released what Lewis always claimed was his favorite LP, the hit-less Dave Lewis Plays Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. The band eventually accepted an extended gig at a new downtown room, D.J.'s (2212 4th Avenue), and in 1967 Dennon released the High Heel Sneakers LP (which, though touted as having been "Recorded Live at D.J.'s" mainly consisted of studio tracks). Lewis recalled that working D.J.'s was a good, comfortable gig. But in hindsight, perhaps it was too comfortable: his trio got stuck in the trap of local nightclub work to the extent that his fans and peers were puzzled by Lewis' consistent disinterest in offers to tour or gig outside of Washington.
Instead of seeking the fame that may have awaited him elsewhere, Lewis slogged along, working rooms like the Black and Tan (404 ½ 12th Avenue), the Downbeat Cabaret (110 3rd Avenue S), the Peppermint Lounge, the Tiki Tavern (1431 23rd Avenue), the Embers (1317 Harbor Avenue SW), and the Checkmate (1431 23rd Avenue). By 1970 (and henceforth without a recording contract) he was ensconced at downtown's plushest Soul music room, the Showcase (2212 4th Avenue), opening for touring stars like Ike and Tina Turner, and Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Yet, by 1971 he'd come full circle back to the 'hood: playing with Back-To-Back -- the house-band at the shabby little Mardi Gras Grill (2047 E Madison Street).
Facing the Music
Lewis -- a player who claimed to have resisted indulging in any illicit substances beyond an occasional reefer in all his years -- had fallen into a rut, and in 1975 was busted for drug possession. Pleading guilty and placed on probation, he was scared straight for the following decade. But the New Wave 1980s weren't too kind to Seattle's R&B musicians, and Lewis -- having lost faith in his own "simple" music (as well as any perspective about its key role in local history) -- grew dismayed. And even though his younger brother, Ulysses, a partner in the firm that managed the Paramount Theater, tried to give him a boost by helping Lewis organize his own Paramount Orchestra (which began opening high-profile shows for touring R&B stars in that stately 1928 hall) there simply wasn't enough demand for such a grandiose project.
Before long though, Lewis once again fell in with the wrong crowd -- and into a downward spiral (that saw him pawning his beloved b-3 organ), and ultimately into serious legal problems. On March 25, 1985, the drug-addicted musician helped rob a north-end pharmacy, was arrested, and pled guilty to first-degree robbery. Seeking documentary proof that he'd been a productive musician with a solid background, Lewis made discreet contact with a columnist at the Seattle Times in an ultimately misguided effort to gain access to old press clippings that would validate his past achievements. What he didn't bargain for, he later said, was a huge 60-column-inch feature article replete with a blaring headline: "DAVE LEWIS' BLUES: Drug problems, trouble with the law mute his one-time promising career." After three decades in the biz, Lewis was embarrassed and heartbroken that this -- the only major mainstream media attention he'd ever gotten -- was a high-profile piece which trumpeted his life's greatest error.
Mortified and plainly penitent, Lewis faced the music on August 19th when (facing a maximum of 20 years in prison) he was sentenced to three years and received a $50,000 fine. But after serving two years, Lewis emerged with a commitment to stay clean and revive his career with the new idea of forming his own Seattle Pops Symphony Orchestra.
Hall of Fame
It would, however, remain Lewis' early work that earned him an unrivalled place in Northwest music history. Indeed: In 1987 he participated in an historic Northwest Rock reunion concert at the Seattle Center Coliseum, and in 1989 he was inducted into the Northwest Area Music Association's Hall of Fame in a ceremonial event at the Moore Theater.
Sadly, on March 13, 1998, Dave Lewis (by now a great-grandfather) succumbed to cancer -- passing too soon to ever know that in 2000 his story would be featured in the Experience Music Project's Northwest Passage exhibit about Seattle R&B history, and that in 2006 his finest vintage recordings would finally be issued on compact disc for a whole new generation of music fans to discover and enjoy.