Gary Lewis on Happy Together: "I Just Wanted to Let My Fans Know I'm Not Dead"

"Everybody loves a clown, so why don't you?/A clown has feelings too..."

-- "Everybody Loves a Clown" by Gary Lewis and the Playboys

In a way, that lyric -- culled from one of the biggest songs of their career -- describes the uncaring attitude accorded Gary Lewis and the Playboys both now and then. One of the staunchest homeland defenders in America's resistance to the British Invasion of the mid-'60s, it racked up seven top ten songs on the Billboard charts between 1965 and 1966: "This Diamond Ring," "Sure Gonna Miss Her," and "Green Grass."

"It felt absolutely wonderful of course, but we didn't start feeling super good until we had that third hit ("She's Just My Style")," Lewis recalls, speaking by phone from Biloxi, Mississippi, where the latest version of the Happy Together revue is about to launch its summer tour.

Their slot in that line-up notwithstanding, those who remember the band at all these days tend to dismiss it as a footnote to an epic era. That's a shame really, because Lewis worked with some of the most prolific musicians of the time, and in a very way, helped launch their legacies as well. It was Al Kooper who penned its first hit "This Diamond Ring," and the legendary producer and record company A&R rep Snuff Garrett and soon-to-be-solo star Leon Russell who helped write, produce and arrange the ensuing singles.

"I came to believe that that little triad -- of Snuff Garett producing, me singing, and Leon Russell arranging confirmed we had a great team," Lewis says in hindsight. "I put all my faith in Snuffy Garrett, because he not only knew how to pick hits, but also when to put them out."

Likewise, while Lewis and the Playboys -- unlike some of the bands at the time, -- actually played on its own albums ("If we weren't good enough to do it, you know Snuffy and Leon Russell would have said something"), they were also fortunate to enlist the fabled team of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew (the same elite bunch who backed the Byrds, the Monkees and many of the Phil Spector sessions) for solos and overdubs. So too, when the band's original bass player Allan Lawson was drafted into the Air Force, he was replaced by none other than the late Carl Radle, who would later made his mark with Delaney and Bonnie and, subsequently, Eric Clapton's Derek and the Dominos. It should also be noted that when Lewis ceded his role as the band's drummer, the job was given to one Jim Keltner, a musician who later played a critical role in the careers of John Lennon, George Harrison, Charlie Watts, the Traveling Wilburys, and literally hundreds of others.

"Singing and drumming was never a challenge for me," Lewis says of that move. "But the reason I decided to come out from behind the drums was because I couldn't see the people and they couldn't see me because of the cymbals. Plus, I had way too much energy to feel trapped behind the drums. I wanted to move around and be a showman. So I decided to move up front pretty quickly."

One of the reasons Lewis and crew was slighted may be due to the fact that their career was prematurely abbreviated in January 1967 when Lewis was drafted into the Army and sent to serve a stint in Korea. By the time he returned, the music scene had shifted dramatically, and the catchy and succinct pop tunes the group once proffered had now been replaced by the heady tomes of FM radio and lengthy album sides that claimed to be all about so-called "serious" music.

"I never wanted to do that kind of music, so I basically quit the music business in 1972," Lewis recalls. "I was very happy with what we all had created for ourselves. I was very happy with that kind of music, and it doesn't bother me now if someone wants to say, 'Oh, that just bubble-gummy kind of stuff.' That's only because they don't know what they're talking about. My songs were excellent songs. They were produced well, they were arranged well, and they weren't predictable. When you listen to a lot of songs, you know where the changes are going to go. My songs were never like that." Indeed, Lewis can take credit for contributing to the songwriting, particularly hits like "Everybody Loves a Clown" and "Just My Style."

During the bulk of the '70s and well into the mid-'80s, Lewis laid low, running a music store in the San Fernando Valley, offering drumming lessons and generally dismissing any idea of a comeback. Then in 1984, he received a call from a promoter offering him a slot on an oldies tour featuring many of his fellow '60s survivors "He said, 'I can book you a hundred dates a year.' And I said, 'Who is this?' I didn't buy it at all. I told him, if you can book them, I'll play them, and since '84, that's pretty much what's been happening. I've never stopped since."

Of course, the extra notoriety accorded the fact that Gary Lewis was the son of Jerry Lewis, one of the biggest stars in the world, couldn't have hurt. However, Lewis claims that to the contrary, he never intended to profit from that fact, and initially even refrained from using his last name so no one would even know. The relationship "had nothing to do with anything," he suggests. "I wasn't doing what my dad did. So people didn't always make the connection. Even today, people come up to me after my shows and say, 'Wow, I had no idea he was your dad.'"

(According to the liner notes accompanying the hits album The Complete Liberty Singles, it was even a surprise to session player Ron Rolla. When he received a check from Jerry Lewis for his role in crafting "This Diamond Ring," he insisted he hadn't made the connection up until that time.)

As Lewis tells it, his famous father was completely unaware of his son's musical intentions, even after he was well on his way to claiming his first hit record. "He didn't even know I had a band until 'This Diamond Ring' was number twenty on the charts," Lewis insists. "I was a minor -- I was only nineteen -- so my mom said, 'OK, if this is what you want to do, I'll buy you the equipment and rent you a rehearsal hall. But don't tell your dad, because if this project fails, I'm going to have to come up with an excuse as to where all this money went.' So when 'Diamond Ring' hit number twenty, she said, 'Alright, now you can tell him.'"

The current incarnation of Gary Lewis and the Playboys doesn't include any members of the original outfit save Lewis himself. The new group was recruited through a series of auditions he held in Nashville. The band that clinched their place as the new Playboys became a shoo-in when Lewis learned they had once worked with his old mentor, Leon Russell. Although he says he hasn't seen Russell in decades, at that point the connection came full circle. Ironically though, the only song Lewis has released since his comeback is entitled "You Can't Go Back."

"I just wanted to let my fans know I'm not dead," Lewis deadpans.

On the contrary, he's still satisfied playing dozens of dates every year, as evidenced by his slot on the Happy Together tour, on which he shares the bill with the Turtles, Gary Puckett, Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. In a way, it's a similar set-up to the packaged tours that were so popular in his heyday, albeit with more creature comforts

"Back then our transportation was on a regular standard bus, but nowadays it's a luxury bus that's laid out with TV and bunks, separate areas for privacy. It's much better now, I'll tell ya. Also, it must be in my blood, because I love every aspect of it. Plus, I'm grateful for having the gift of music. So if you're grateful and you still love doing it, you never get tired of it. You suck it up."

So, after all this time, does he find himself battling any pre-show jitters?

"Before I go on, I've always get this tiny, little thing," he concedes. "It's not jitters, but concern because I want it to go well. Yet, the second I come up on stage, that's all gone."

Gary Lewis performs as part of the Happy Together Tour at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 11, at the Coral Springs Center for the Arts, 2855 Coral Springs Dr., Coral Springs. Tickets cost $39.50 - $69.50. Call 866-625-4586.

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Lee Zimmerman