Gary Lewis, Jerry Lewis’ son, learned the tricks of the sticks from Buddy Rich, grew up around the corner from the Beverly Hillbillies’ set, cut his teeth on rock & roll, was discovered at Disneyland, became an overnight hitmaker at 19 and then, boom, was shipped off to Vietnam
These days Gary Lewis lives with his wife—a fan who he met at one of his shows—on 11 quiet acres of rolling hills, grass and pine trees, which he describes as “heaven” just outside Rochester, New York. The one-time hitmaker, and son of funnyman Jerry Lewis, lit up when he told me about the pleasure he takes in cutting the grass on his John Deere mower. It’s a long way from the affluent Hollywood lifestyle of his childhood, and I get the feeling Gary likes it that way.
The first phase of Gary Lewis’s career only lasted four years, and his signature “This Diamond Ring” is one of the ‘60s most ubiquitous hits. But, as great as his hits are (he had 12 songs reach the Top 40), for me the delights of Gary’s career are the sublime album cuts. There are great off the cuff covers of garage band staples like The Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and The Kinks’ “All Day And All Of The Night” and songs like “Without A Word Of Warning,” “Girls In Love” and “Loser with Broken Heart” are shining examples of the West Coast hit-making machine at its finest. Great songwriters, arrangers and musicians combined with great producers and unique performers, like Gary, all with the sole goal of connecting with teenagers, and making hit records.
Gary Lewis & the Playboys cover the Beatles on live television:
Talking with Gary Lewis, I also get the feeling that he’s used a considerable amount of psychic energy throughout his life searching for the “real world” and trying to find his place in it. Simple for some, but when you grow up with the very complex Jerry Lewis as a father, nothing is simple or normal. Add to that having a number one song when you’re still a teenager, and his just wasn’t a standard childhood. Perhaps that explains why there are some subjects Gary just doesn’t want to talk about. After some ups and downs he is in a good place, and for him, there’s no reason to go negative.
Is he bitter? I don’t think so, but maybe he hasn’t quite come to peace with all of his struggles. Perhaps that makes him normal after all.
Please note: there was a lot of laughing during this conversation that you’re just going to have to imagine.
PKM: Tell me what your grandparents [his father Jerry’s parents] were like. They were both in show business. Do you remember them as being vital show business people?
Gary Lewis: No. As a matter of fact I knew my grandparents real well, they didn’t die until I was in my mid-forties, and they were vaudeville performers in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They were usually the opening act, they tried to be better than that, but it never really worked out for them. That’s what they did most of their lives. My grandfather would have liked to be an Al Jolson or somebody, but it never worked out. They were great people, I loved them.
PKM: Were they around a lot when you were growing up?
Gary Lewis: They were always over to our house. My grandmother would always bring over matzo ball soup and all the Jewish dishes. My dad was Jewish and my mom was Catholic-Italian, and that caused complete turmoil for a few years of their marriage. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a Jewish/Italian heartburn.
PKM: So your grandparents weren’t convinced a Catholic was welcome in the family.
Gary Lewis: They were completely Jewish. There were no breaks, no nothing like that. It was pretty stiff for a long time. They didn’t get along with my mom and she didn’t get along with them, but so what? Big deal.
PKM: Your mom was a big-band singer, also from show-biz. From all accounts, I’ve heard she was like a saint.
Gary Lewis: She is an absolute saint. She’s still around, she’s 97 years old, lives in Las Vegas and perfectly healthy. I saw her last month when we went out to play The Golden Nugget.
PKM: You were born in 1945. Is it true your folks wanted to name you after Cary Grant, but there was some sort of error and that’s how you became Gary?
Gary Lewis: My mom had a crush on Cary Grant when I was born, so the first two years of my life I was Cary, and my dad said “You know… that’s just stupid.” He didn’t like it at all. So when he legally changed his name from Levitch to Lewis, I was included on those papers to be Gary. I’m glad I wasn’t old enough to realize… maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. I’ve been Gary since I can remember.
PKM: Your dad was nineteen when you were born. This was before he met Dean Martin. So in the first ten years of your life, his career just skyrocketed. Were you aware of that acceleration?
Gary Lewis: No. Because he met Dean in ‘47, and I was already two years old. I knew that they were famous, because I would always go to the theaters with him and Dean. I knew they were a big deal, but it didn’t register, I thought that everybody else’s sons and daughters in the world all had famous parents. I found out later, when I got to be about 16 years old and I started realizing that being raised in a rich family, and having everything we wanted and all that, I realized that wasn’t real life. I did enjoy all that traveling and not having to want for anything. I didn’t really care for it too much anymore. I didn’t want to be poor, but I would have rather lived in a real world, instead of that, because you’re so sheltered with so much distance between you and reality. It was kind of a drag for me.
PKM: The relationship folks like me have with your dad is one from seeing his work and seeing him on talk shows. Frankly it’s hard to imagine that that guy was a good dad. Was he a good dad? Was that person we saw different in private?
Gary Lewis: In all the interviews I do, a lot of people want to know that stuff, but the truth is, to answer you honestly, would be slamming him, and I don’t want to slam him, so I’d rather not talk about that.
Gary upstaging his old man on Hullabaloo in 1965:
PKM: Fair enough. I know he was a gadget nut. I imagine you growing up in a house with speakers wired everywhere and a James Bond hi-fi set that would come out of the wall when you pushed a button. Was it like that?
Gary Lewis: Yeah it was. It absolutely was. He put a recording studio in the house. He had intercoms in every single room. He’d get on the intercom and say “Hey Gary, come in here a minute, will ya?” Later on we realized that he could listen in to us without us knowing. So we never said anything weird, or talked about girls. Me and my brothers we talked about all the guy stuff, and we realized we better not do that.
PKM: So were you always listening to records or the radio?
Gary Lewis: I was totally into rock & roll. I heard Elvis doing “Hound Dog” and I was hooked. In our show we cover tunes that were very big to me before I ever thought about getting into rock & roll. I liked the Clovers’ “Love Potion #9” and “Runaway” by Del Shannon and even early James Brown.
PKM: You covered some of those songs on your records subsequently. What an amazing turnaround, to be a fan and then release your own versions.
Gary Lewis: That’s the way it was in the ‘60s when I was recording. You would put your hit on the album, and then you’d do everybody else’s hit, but that’s what people expected. Now that I think about it, that’s pretty weird.
PKM: It’s similar to your father’s generation, when singers all covered The Great American Songbook.
Gary Lewis: Right.
PKM: You grew up in Bel Air. What was that neighborhood like?
Gary Lewis: It was all mansions, 30-room mansions. So we didn’t have too many neighbors, because there was so much land. It was incredibly huge. The mansion that they used in The Beverly Hillbillies was just around the corner from our house, and they were all like that. It was kind of fun, except that there was no grass. In Los Angeles it’s all concrete. It was OK, but my dad had to put gates all around the property. He was worried about people getting in.
PKM: Frank Sinatra Jr. got kidnapped. You could have been next!
Gary Lewis: Yeah. I was a little worried about that. We were on tour with Jan and Dean, and Dean Torrence was involved in that whole thing some way… I don’t remember exactly what. Dean told me that was all a publicity thing. Just publicity for Frank Jr., and I believe him.
PKM: When did you take up the drums?
Gary Lewis: I started playing when I was five. My dad got me a set of drums. A five-year-old kid playing drums, they don’t know what they’re doing, it’s just noise. My mom would say “Would you stop that?” When I was about six, this friend of my dad’s came over to the house and he saw the drums and he says “Hey kid, come on, let me show you some things on the drums,” so that happened for about six or seven years before I finally found out this friend of my dad’s was Buddy Rich! All those years of Buddy Rich training helped me out a lot.
PKM: So how did you put The Playboys together? Were these just guys from school or your neighborhood?
Gary Lewis: I was going to a theater arts college in Pasadena, and The Beatles came over and did The Ed Sullivan Show. BOOM! That’s when it happened. I said “That’s it! That is what I want to do.” So I formed the original Playboys from classmates at that theater arts college in January of ’64 and we played for about a year at fraternity and sorority parties, small gigs around the campus, and then we auditioned for a summer job out at Disneyland. We auditioned with about ten other bands and I didn’t use my last name cause I wanted to see if we could do it with no favoritism, and we got the job for June, July and August of ’64 in Disneyland. That’s where our producer, Snuffy Garrett, saw us. He was out at the park with his family, and after the show he came backstage and gave me his card and said “Hi, I’m head of A&R at Liberty Records. You guys sound pretty good. I’d like to talk to you about doing some recording.” Now, isn’t that the way everybody wishes it would happen?
PKM: For a 19-year-old-boy, Disneyland sounds like a super fun gig. Did it get old?
Gary Lewis: No. We were young, and having so much fun. That was our first paying job. And to walk away with forty bucks a night, are you kidding me – that was heaven. And to this very day, when I get on stage, it’s never old. I’m enjoying myself all the time. It’s been a beautiful ride, I’ve been blessed, so blessed, I’m just so grateful for everything.
PKM: You guys must have gotten good. How many hours a day were you playing in Disneyland?
Gary Lewis: We had to do four sets a night. Starting at nine, all the way up to one. So we built up a pretty good repertoire, and we were getting better and better. So I went into Liberty Records with my mom, because I was still a minor, and Snuffy was playing a demo of “This Diamond Ring.” It was a weird demo, it didn’t sound anything like our version, but I said “Yeah, I’d love to do it,” but I would have loved to do whatever song he played for us, I wanted to get going with recording. “This Diamond Ring,” right out of the box, hit number one. Sold a million records in about six weeks, and kicked The Beatles out of number one, how ironic is that? They were the reason I got into rock & roll.
PKM: How long after the day you walked into that office was “This Diamond Ring” number one?
Gary Lewis: We walked into the office in September of ‘64, we recorded it in November, and by February of 1965 it was number one.
When I was about six, this friend of my dad’s came over to the house and he saw the drums and he says “Hey kid, come on, let me show you some things on the drums,” so that happened for about six or seven years before I finally found out this friend of my dad’s was Buddy Rich!
PKM: Looking at your discography, the pace or your releases was kind of mind-blowing. I think your first four LPs came out within 12 months!
Gary Lewis: That’s how Liberty wanted it. They didn’t want anything to get stale. I loved it. Yes, the pace was hectic. Sometimes we were recording at four in the morning. Snuff Garret would say to us “Some of the best stuff comes at four in the morning, when you’re so tired you don’t care.” So I listened to him because he was a hit picker, he knew how to pick hit songs and he knew exactly when you put them out. And Leon Russell was our arranger before he had his own career.
PKM: It was an amazing time for people churning out great songs, like P.F. Sloan & Barri and Bonner & Gordon. Did Liberty pick the songs or did you have a hand in that?
Gary Lewis: I had no hand in it. To tell the truth, I didn’t want any hand in it. Because I didn’t know anything about it. I was young. I was having fun. This was wonderful. Let the guy who never had any failures pick the tunes!
PKM: Did you guys travel on any of those package shows?
Gary Lewis: Sure! That was the very first tour we did, in 1965. We only had “Diamond Ring” at the time and “Count Me In” was about to come out, and we did The Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour. It was about ten acts. We’d all get on a bus and do six to eight weeks of one-nighters. It was terrific because the people on that tour were people I’d admired before I’d even got into music. Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Brian Hyland, The Yardbirds, The Crystals, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Oh it was just wonderful, traveling with those guys and playing music at night, it was absolutely great.
PKM: And you were 19 or 20 at this time, right?
Gary Lewis: I was still nineteen.
PKM: As a young man, it must have opened your eyes to lots of stuff.
Gary Lewis: It opened my eyes to how many wonderfully beautiful women there are in the world.
PKM: That’s what I was thinking, but didn’t want to say that.
Gary Lewis: Yeah… Rock & Roll.
“This Diamond Ring,” right out of the box, hit number one. Sold a million records in about six weeks, and kicked The Beatles out of number one, how ironic is that? They were the reason I got into rock & roll.
PKM: You got drafted in the midst of this, in 1967. How hot was the band at that moment?
Gary Lewis: We were just coming off our seventh Top 10 hit in a row, and then I got my draft notice. BOOM! Hit the brick wall at 100 miles an hour.
PKM: Did you ever consider Canada or some other option?
Gary Lewis: No. I looked at my draft notice and I said “Elvis did it, I’m gonna do it.” And that’s exactly what I did. And it was the best thing I could have done for myself. You grow up very fast in the Army, and I needed to grow up fast and get rid of that cocky little attitude I had for a while.
PKM: I never heard that you had a cocky attitude. How did that manifest itself?
Gary Lewis: Coming out of a rich family, having everything we wanted, to my very first attempt in a career of my own and having seven Top Tens in a row, you can’t help but get a fat head. It happens. You don’t wise up until later in life. But I’m glad I caught it at about 25.
PKM: Vietnam is a harsh place to learn that lesson. What was your job in the Army?
Gary Lewis: I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where everybody flies in, and I was handing out 201 files, giving out orders. It was relatively easy duty, I wasn’t in combat, but heard it all day. And the reason I went over to Vietnam is the Army, after basic training, said to me “Why don’t you get a band together, travel all over the country and just play for the people, play for the servicemen everywhere?”, and I said “No, I’ve got to live with these guys, and that favoritism is going to kill me. Just give me a job.” They said “Okay. How about Da Nang?”
Gary Lewis: I was only there for three months actually, because there was a huge military build up in South Korea, because the North Koreans took one of our ships, and they thought this was gonna be a big deal. So I was sent to South Korea, but the whole thing was diffused in about a week. So there I was, no problem, no nothing, and I enjoyed that duty.
PKM: So you came back after two years having learned some lessons. How different was the world when you returned?
Gary Lewis: Well, when I came back there were these new people in music, called Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and I’m thinking to myself “Where do I fit in to this?” So I went to Snuffy Garret at Liberty and I said “Jeez, what’s happening? Can we do anything?” and man, I’ll never forget this, he looked at me and said “I’m sorry man, there is no more market for you” just like that, BOOM, THE END!
So what I did, instead of trying to stay in music, and play all of what’s happening today, that wasn’t my style. So what I did was I got out of music entirely, and from 1972 to 1984 I had a music store in Southern California. It was called Gary’s, by the way. I sold drums and guitars and gave lessons. I was a working man. I had a real job.
PKM: Was that an ego bruise or was that cool?
Gary Lewis: The first couple of years it was really hard, because the ‘70s were totally cruel to ‘60s people. I had people asking me when I was trying to play out at small clubs, “Can you do your hits in Disco style?” I said, “No, I can’t!”
In 1984, this agent called me and said “The Sixties are coming back.” I was almost gonna hang up and he says “I can book you 60 to 100 dates a year” and since 1984, that’s exactly what’s been happening.
PKM: Seven top ten hits, four gold albums, 45 million records sold. Somebody made a lot of money. Did you have a good deal? Did Liberty deal with you fairly?
Gary Lewis: Compared to everything that was going on, I had a fantastic deal. Most artists make four percent; I was making eight percent. Where does that other 92% go? Liberty Records! They make all the money. When I talk to Sixties artists that I know, they say “Man, you got 8 percent. Jeez, I got two or I got three.” It’s like horror stories almost. My mom and her lawyers were so smart. Liberty Records could not outsmart my mom.
PKM: So if someone wants to use “This Diamond Ring” in a movie, do you get paid right away?
Gary Lewis: Sure. I still get three different royalties; writer’s, publishing and artist’s, and over the years they’ve gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Plus, we sell CDs at all of our gigs, and almost the entire audience always buys them. I’m not trying to make tons of money, I just want our fans to know that we’re not dead.
PKM: Your dad just died a little over a year ago. I’m sorry about that. Were you friendly as adults?
Gary Lewis: Not really. I don’t want to elaborate on anything. There was distance. There was just distance. It’s all personal stuff. A lot of people have those same problems. I just don’t want to be one of those people who, now that he’s gone, will say, “Oh good, now I can tell the truth!” I’ve been offered so much money to write slam books about him… no way. I’m just not doing it.
PKM: So how many shows a year are you doing these days?
Gary Lewis: Every year is totally different. This year we did about 40, next year I’m hoping for at least that. Plus, I’m healthy, but I’m starting to feel a little joint pain every now and then, so if I have less gigs in one year I’m probably supposed to have those gigs.
PKM: And you still love the time on stage?
Gary Lewis: Absolutely. It’s just a wonderful thing, the rewards of having the audience smiling and mouthing the words right along with you. And we will give it our all every single gig. We will do the same show for one person or 10,000 people. I plan on doing this as long as I can.
PKM: It definitely seems like for you the balance of is it a blessing or a curse to be born into your family is something that you have dealt with and weighed throughout the years and come to peace with.
Gary Lewis: Exactly. It was a blessing for the first part of my life, but then it turned into a curse, when you realize that this is not life, at all, this is not reality. And BOOM when I went into the Army and came out and realized there was no more market for me, then I became poor. That was real life right there. I didn’t like it, but I saw how the world was and how life really is. In 1984, when I started working again and started making money, I kept that humility with me. So it was a gift, a curse, and now it’s a gift again.
You know, I had a bad dream one night, I dreamt that all my fans died. Can you imagine that? It’s like: “Oh my God it’s really over!” But I woke up and was happy.
PKM: That’s weird. What do you think that means? Any idea?
Gary Lewis: Boy, I don’t know. I really don’t know. How could I know that all my fans died?
PKM: That’s bizarre.
Gary Lewis: Yeah it was bizarre, I’m not gonna figure that one out.
PKM: Some things are better left alone.
Gary Lewis: Really.