By Lee Zimmerman
As one of America's staunchest defenders in musical resistance to the British Invasion of the 1960s, Gary Lewis and The Playboys racked up seven Top 10 songs on the Billboard charts between 1965 and 1966: “This Diamond Ring” (No. 1) “Count Me In” (No. 2), “Save Your Heart For Me” (No. 2), “Everybody Loves A Clown” (No. 4), “She’s Just My Style” (No. 3), “Sure Gonna Miss Her” (No. 9) and “Green Grass” (No. 8).
Despite their chart success, Lewis and The Playboys tend to be dismissed as a footnote to an epic era. That’s a shame, really, because the band worked with some of the most prolific musicians of the time. It was Al Kooper who penned the group’s first hit, “This Diamond Ring,” and the legendary producer and record company A&R man 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 Garrett producing, me singing and Leon Russell arranging — confirmed we had a great team,” Lewis says. “I put all my faith in Snuffy Garrett, because he not only knew how to pick hits, but also when to put them out.”
Unlike some bands at the time, Lewis and The Playboys actually played on their own albums. “If we weren’t good enough to do it, you know Snuffy and Leon Russell would have said something,” Lewis says.
But the band also had access to the elite studio musicians known collectively as The Wrecking Crew for solos, overdubs and later on, replacement members. When original bassist Allan Ramsay was drafted into the Air Force, The Wrecking Crew’s Carl Radle (later of Derek & The Dominos) took his place.
When Lewis ceded his role as the band’s drummer, the job went to Wrecking Crew member Jim Keltner, who went on to work with hundreds of other artists, including John Lennon, George Harrison, Charlie Watts and The Traveling Wilburys.
“Singing and drumming was never a challenge for me,” Lewis says. “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.”
But there was one thing the band just couldn’t overcome: Lewis’ January 1967 conscription into the Army, where he was assigned to serve a stint in Korea. By the time Lewis returned to the States, the music scene had shifted dramatically. The band’s catchy, succinct pop tunes didn’t fit with 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’s just bubblegummy 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.”
Lewis can take credit for contributing to the songwriting, particularly with “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “Just My Style.”
For the bulk of the 1970s and well into the mid-’80s, Lewis laid low, running a music store in California’s San Fernando Valley, where he offered drumming lessons and generally dismissed 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.”
Gary Lewis just happens to be the son of actor and comedy legend Jerry Lewis. But he never set out to profit from that fact. Initially, he even refrained from using his last name so no one would know. Their relationship had “nothing to do with anything,” he says. “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 unaware of his son’s musical intentions. “He didn’t even know I had a band until ‘This Diamond Ring’ was No. 20 on the charts,” Lewis insists. “I was a minor — I was only 19 — 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 No. 20, she said, ‘All right, now you can tell him.’”
The current incarnation of Gary Lewis and The Playboys doesn’t include any other original members. The new group was recruited through a series of auditions held in Nashville and cinched its spot as the new Playboys when Lewis learned they had once worked with his old mentor, Leon Russell. Although Lewis hasn’t seen Russell in decades, at that point the connection came full circle. Ironically, the only song Lewis has released since his comeback is titled “You Can’t Go Back.”
“I just wanted to let my fans know I’m not dead,” Lewis deadpans.
Given the lengthy list of Happy Together tour dates Lewis played this summer, it’s clear Lewis’ fans are quite content to come and see him (a)live. While the tour package resembles the packaged tours that were popular in The Playboys’ heyday, this incarnation features a very important distinction.
“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,” Lewis says. 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.” GM