In the late ’50s and early ’60s, instrumental rock ’n’ roll bands shook, rattled and rolled their way through West Coast dance halls, with the “Northwest sound” of such bands as The Wailers (“Tall Cool One”) central to this vibrant, pre-Beatles scene.
An African-American musician who strongly influenced the blues-drenched music of these white rock groups — and who also popularized the whir of the Hammond B-3 organ in Seattle — was Dave Lewis. Though Lewis had several regional radio hits — “Little Green Thing,” “David’s Mood,” “J.A.J.” — he never broke out nationally and is largely unknown to younger generations.
Lewis’ son and grandson — Dave Lewis Jr. and jazz drummer D’Vonne Lewis — aim to change that. On Saturday, they are presenting The Dave Lewis Revue II, a tribute to the elder Lewis at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
“We want to let Seattle know his music still lives and his spirit is still here,” says Dave Lewis Jr., 50. “We don’t want the city of Seattle to forget.”
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The Lewis family is a Central District musical dynasty that goes back four generations to the original Dave Lewis, an amateur 12-string guitarist and barber who migrated during World War II from Fort Worth, Texas, to the Bremerton area, where he offered rudimentary music lessons to an eager young neighbor named Quincy Jones. After the war, Dave Sr. got work at Boeing and moved to Seattle, where he also continued to cut hair.
Lewis Sr.’s son — born in Texas in 1938 and also named Dave, though oddly never called “Dave Jr.” — took piano lessons from his mom and in 1955 formed one of Seattle’s first doo-wop vocal groups, the Five Checks. A year later, at Garfield High School, the young musician formed the Dave Lewis Combo, which soon found itself opening for the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets and Little Richard.
Like Jimi Hendrix, Lewis was expelled from Garfield High School (for allegedly stealing cymbals), but graduated from Franklin in 1957, after which his combo became one of the hottest acts in town at the Madison Avenue dance club Birdland and, later, during the World’s Fair, at Dave’s Fifth Avenue.
In 1962, Lewis took up the Hammond B-3 and stripped down to a trio featuring the great Northwest rock guitarist Joe Johansen and Gibraltar-solid drummer Dickie Enfield. It was with this lean and mean threesome that Lewis recorded the wailing “David’s Mood” and the sweet-and-sour ballad, “Little Green Thing,” which made Lewis a local radio star. (These and other Lewis cuts are available on the compilation, “Dave Lewis: The Godfather of Northwest Rock.”)
Lewis was a ferociously swinging blues-rocker who wailed, chattered, churned, stuttered, rippled and roared over the B-3 keys with carefully calibrated riffs.
“He was an excellent blues musician, he had it all covered,” recalled Seattle jazz drummer Dean Hodges, who worked with Lewis in the mid-60s at D.J.’s, on Fourth Avenue.
By all reports, Lewis also lived life to the hilt.
“They say he was one of the sharpest dressers in town and he had all the ladies and he always had bread in his pocket,” said his son. “Wherever Dave was, that’s where the party was.”
Over the years, Lewis fathered eight children by five women, two of whom he married, but the partying ultimately took its toll. In 1975, he was arrested for drug possession and after a failed comeback as the leader of a big band was arrested again and served two years for robbing a pharmacy. In 1989, his career over, he was inducted into the Northwest Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame. He died in 1998, of cancer.
For a while, Dave Lewis Jr. furthered the family musical tradition, playing drums and singing in church, but eventually left music and fell into a life that, like his father’s, included some jail time. Music leapfrogged a generation to Lewis Jr.’s son, D’Vonne, whom Seattle jazz fans first got to know as the stunning young drummer in the Roosevelt High School Jazz Band that won the Essentially Ellington competition in New York in 2002.
Since then, D’Vonne Lewis, now 30, has become one of the most celebrated young musicians in town, working with the late saxophonist Hadley Caliman, pianist Marc Seales, funky sax man Skerik and leading his own trio, Industrial Revelation. Lewis received a 2006 “Golden Ear” award from Seattle’s nonprofit organization, Earshot Jazz.
“People my age don’t even know who Dave Lewis was,” says D’Vonne Lewis, who thinks of himself as working in the same funky tradition as his grandfather.
Though a modest tribute to Dave Lewis was mounted two years ago, the Dave Lewis Revue II at Langston Hughes is more ambitious. Industrial Revelation and Skerik’s group, Bandalabra, will play along with a host of other Seattle players including organist Delvon Lamarr and guitarist Andy Coe, who as the Dave Lewis Revue will perform Lewis’ compositions.
Lewis Jr. will emcee and also do a bit of singing himself. As patrons walk in, they will hear Dave Lewis’ hits piped into the theater.
“Dave Lewis was a pioneer in the Pacific Northwest,” said Lewis Jr. “He crossed over into a white music realm, if you will — rock ’n’ roll. He made the transition where a lot of musicians at that time in Seattle were afraid, or weren’t allowed. He just kind of said, ‘Here I am.’ ”
And here he is again — or at least the sweet and funky memory of him, as presented by his enduring family line.
Paul de Barros (206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org) covers music at blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/ or follow him on Twitter @pdebarros