“I have heard Ray Charles, Z Z Hill, Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Bland, Albert King, Ry Cooder, Rita Coolidge, Dorothy Moore, Denise La Salle and Latimore sing Jimmy Lewis’ songs and they were great. But until you hear Jimmy himself render and sermonise through his songs, you won’t know how great it sounds and how good it feels.”
Little Richard 1997
In most walks of life true genius is seldom acknowledged and rarely duly rewarded. The music business bears this out most acutely, with dozens of hugely talented musicians, vocalists, producers and writers gaining no recognition whatsoever from the public. Jimmy Lewis epitomises this phenomenon. He is a man whose career can be traced from the very early 60s right up to the present and has given us a body of work that is a yardstick with which to assess and evaluate black American soul music of any era. It seems rather ironic then, that perhaps his greatest commercial achievement has come in the twilight of his career. This recent astounding success was with ‘Bill’ by the rejuvenated Peggy Scott Adams on his “home-made” Miss Butch Records; a company run on a shoe-string budget, which utilised all the skills Lewis had learned over the last 30 years in the cut-throat world of black music.
But Jimmy Lewis is undoubtedly ready for his long overdue success. His staying power is frankly amazing and very few artists in his field have lasted the course longer - George Jackson and Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams are two other worthy examples. Don Covay (reportedly still recuperating from a stroke) is another, while Joe Tex is sadly long gone. These are the legendary names to whom Lewis is compared and it is a true test of his talent that he bows to none of them. As a writer he is held in awe by a small but dedicated legion of fans, and as a vocalist his “Sam Cooke with grit” rasping baritone sends a tingle down the spine each time he sings. Lewis’ spontaneous adlibs to musicians and studio personnel can instantly create a churchy “get happy” atmosphere which is so rarely transmitted from studio on to tape. His infectious chuckling asides have become a trademark, which artists such as Bobby Womack have adopted. Moreover, Lewis’ nonchalant directions to “stick with me” or “take your time” can change the mood or thrust of a song. By fusing the “Gotta Gotta” raw grit of soul’s golden era with the more sophisticated arrangements of the early 70s, he produced a musical legacy to rank alongside the likes of Bobby Womack or even Wilson Pickett.
Lewis’ magnificent “Totally Involved” album, recorded in 1974 (cut in LA but sounding like a renegade from Muscle Shoals, Alabama), remains arguably the finest album of its ilk. One can only marvel at its spontaneity, its intensity, its awe-inspiring musicianship and arrangements, its ingenious street-level lyrics and above all the command and subtle nuances of Lewis’ vocals. To listen to the album in its entirety is one of soul music’s most uplifting experiences.
Jimmy Lewis was born in the tiny delta town of Itta Bena near Greenwood, Mississippi but Los Angeles has been his home now for over 40 years. For someone whose sound is so steeped in the gospel tradition, it comes as quite a surprise that his introduction to music came not through the church, but through a friend who ran a car club in LA! Somewhere along the line he hooked-up with his first writing partner, Clifford Chambers. They worked together right through the 60s and together with James Carmichael (later to find fame as producer of the Commodores, the Jackson 5 and Lionel Richie) they produced a small string of 45s, the first being ‘Goodbye Sorrow’on Cyclone Records in 1962. A year later there were three releases for J J Jones’ Four “J” record label. One track ‘Wait Until Spring’ was picked-up for wider distribution, over a year later, by Era Records and did quite well. It was obvious from these fine, but generally derivative recordings that Little Richard, Ray Charles and long-time hero Sam Cooke were the influences on Lewis’ music. It was also apparent that here was a lyricist who held great promise. A second Era release, the rated mover, ‘What Can I Do Now’ further cemented his progress and his voice caught the ear of Bill Pinkney, one of the original Drifters, (who at that time also included, Gerhart Thrasher, Bobby Hollis and Bobby Hendricks), and Lewis joined the group replacing Hendricks as lead singer from 1963-65. He was also to appear with one of the many Drifters conglomerates in the mid 70s.
Around 1968 Lewis came to the attention of Ray Charles, who overheard him demoing one of his friend Jimmy Holiday’s songs. Charles was knocked out by Lewis’ talent and they were to collaborate on many projects, even cutting a duet ‘If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck’, for Charles’ Tangerine label in January 1969. Lewis wrote and arranged every track on Charles’ superb “Doing His Thing” album on ABC, whose strong sales led to a Grammy nomination. In the 90s Charles has entrusted Lewis with musical input, notably on the “Would You Believe” LP recorded in 1990 and more recently the “Strong Love Affair” LP of 1996, both cut for Warner Brothers. Their friendship endures to this day.
Charles and Lewis’ association bump-started Lewis’ own solo career. He made a string of 45s for the Tangerine label, highlights being the searing balladry of ‘I’ll Be Here’ and ‘We Can Make It’ and the riotous dance music of ‘I’m Steppin’ Out’ and ‘Finger Licking Good’. On the whole it was as formidable a body of work as any produced by the 60s big boys.
A year prior to the Tangerine deal, he had had a short stay at Minit Records, which found him trading lyrics with Jimmy Holiday and spawned the still amazing single ‘The Girls From Texas’ which was flipped with the furious Northern Soul favourite ‘Let Me Know’. ‘Girls’ is a stark and simple soul classic, the off-beat piano and lashing snare that introduces Jimmy’s wry lyrics still thrill today - “I met a girl from Texas not long ago, we dated for about a month, then I decided to let her go, yeh but she pulled a razor about 10” or so and now every night you hear me knockin’ at her door!” Its follow-up ‘Turn Your Damper Down’ resembled a diesel-paced ‘Midnight Hour’, whilst its terrific ballad flip, ‘Where Is My Baby’ also aped the frenzied tantrums of Wilson Pickett.
Of course his solo 45s were only part of the picture. Most soul music collections will contain at least one of his fine songs or productions from names such as Leon Haywood, Marie Franklin, Jimmy Holiday, Z Z Hill, Neal Kimble, Johnnie Taylor, Little Richard, The Raelettes or even pop performers like Rita Coolidge. The zenith of this period was his collaboration with guitarist/singer Arthur Adams, whose ‘It’s Private Tonight’ (Blue Thumb, 1973) was a deep soul wrist-slasher (It was also covered immaculately by David Oliver for Mercury in 1979).
During the early 70s his solo career took a back seat to his rapidly progressing songwriting, and major entries on the billboard Hot 100 sat neatly alongside class album tracks by singers like Z Z Hill, Ted Taylor, Bobby Womack and John Edwards. He managed a fine but solitary 45 for Buddah, ‘String Bean’ / ‘I’m Just Doing To You’/ ‘What You Done To Me’, a Raymond Jackson collaboration (sometime partner of Homer Banks and Carl Hampton). This suggested a Muscle Shoals connection and both sides teem with that greasy Alabama sound. Another 45, this time self-produced was picked-up by Detroit producer Don Davis. The failure of this excellent single ‘Stop Half Loving These Women’ (Volt) was probably due more to Davis’ insistence on using the song for Johnnie Taylor, than any lack of quality in the writing.
In late 1973 Lewis negotiated a production and writing deal with GRC Enterprises, whose umbrella covered both the Aware and Hotlanta labels. Looking back, it was the period that brought about Lewis’ most inaccurate character assessment, when, in an interview of the day he described GRC boss Michael Thevis as “a straight and honest man and I trust him as a friend.” Thevis was eventually convicted as a gangster and racketeer and as far as any one knows is still behind bars!
Artistically, his judgement was better. His LP “Totally Involved”, which he made for the label, is a classic in any language, containing some quite remarkable music, all of which has been lovingly assembled onto this compilation.
The natural banter of the main album opener, “It Ain’t What’s On The Woman” proved a revelation, closely followed by the infectious groove of the popular ‘Is That Any Way To Treat A Lady’, a tasty dancefloor spin for the knowledgeable DJ’s of the day (it was also released on single, though without the glorious Sam Cooke impersonation of its final minute). ‘Thank You’ also held a hypnotic and easy lilt that still demands club action today. Listen also to Lewis’ scintillating vocal duel with one of the background vocalists (possibly Gloria Jones), on the uplifting ‘Help Me Understand You’. The “pick” track though just has to be the chilling ‘How Long Is A Heartache Supposed To Last’, a drop-dead soulful cocktail of mocking banked horns and quivering Dave T Walker guitar. Lewis moans out the lyrics in such sweet anguish, before a melee of double-tracked vocal fireworks take the whole thing home. Lewis pleads despairingly, “Bach and Basie used to be my thing, but since that woman left here, all I play y’all, is B.B. King.”
But it was still his songwriting that paid the bills, and in 1977 he hit paydirt with Z Z Hill’s smash hit for Columbia, ‘Love Is So Good When You Steal It’, a collaboration with Frank O Johnson (another awesome singer-songwriter still around today). Lewis continued to supply Z Z with grade A material and they took the charts by storm four years later on Malaco Records.
Lewis’ association with Malaco endures to this day. Along with new partner, Rich Cason, he has produced the Rose Brothers, Formula Five and most impressively, Latimore. Cason has a penchant for electronic synthesisers and was the man behind Lewis’ main “blot on the landscape” recording, the horrendous electro-dance of ‘Street Freeks’ (MCA 1984); an enamel-stripping exercise in excruciating synth and Vocoder noises, recorded as the LA Street Band, a pseudonym for Cason’s keyboard programming antics.
Back in the real soul world, Malaco have benefited greatly from Lewis’ writing and production skills. He has provided fine material for Dorothy Moore, Z Z Hill, Bobby Bland, Latimore, Johnnie Taylor (his fabulous, ‘I’m Changing’ remains a personal favourite) and Denise La Salle. The obscure ‘Part Time Lover, Full Time Fool’ made it on to 45 and highlighted an iffy album from Formula Five, though the formidable Esther Jones guested on that particular track.
Out from under Malaco’s wing, ace producer Scott Billington chose Lewis’ ‘Don’t Tell Me What A Man Won’t Do For A Woman’ to be a highlight on Solomon Burke’s “Rounder” album, while Ted Taylor’s ‘Get Your Own Woman’, from his final SPG album, is obscure but could be a blues classic in the making. Best for me though was San Francisco’s best kept secret, Frankie Lee, (alongside the great Freddie Hughes of course!) who made best use of Lewis’ ingenious ‘The Ladies And The Babies’, making it the lead track of his magnificent Hightone album.
Today Lewis is basking in the deserved success of his own record label, with strong-selling CDs from journeyman Chuck Strong and, in particular, female vocal sensation Peggy Scott Adams (formerly one half of the 60s hit makers Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson), whose nationwide US smash ‘Bill’ has filled the coffers nicely. Most interestingly Lewis has his own album available and though “It’s Getting Harder” is not a complete success (mainly due to a low-budget production), it shows his singing and writing skills to be undiminished. Indeed Living Blues magazine praised the project as “probably the soul/blues album of the year”. As I write a brand new offering is hot off the presses, still on his own label, but now boasting the additional vocal talents of his friend Little Richard and the aforementioned Peggy Scott Adams. The title is “Soulgasm” and promises to put Lewis back in the charts.
Other recent CDs of note are the hard-to-find Japanese issue of “Totally Involved” (Blues Interactions 1994 release) featuring nine previously unissued Hotlanta tracks. Collectables’ Golden Classic series made available much of the Hotlanta album, plus further unissued tracks. None of these unissued tracks form part of this compilation but watch out for volume two of this series, where those and many other unreleased gems will appear!