A friend of Jack Lewis posted a farewell message on the TAPE OP Message Board on January 5, 2011, noting that Lewis had passed away that week after a long illness. His closing comments reflected that “Jack’s life won’t be eulogized on the world wide web.” In the nine years since Jack’s passing this observation has proved to be correct. A search for information about Jack Lewis on the internet yielded zero results. The staff at Jazz Research hopes that this initial post and the one following that highlight Jack’s remarkable early achievements at RCA Victor on the West Coast and then the East Coast when he was transferred to New York will rectify this shortcoming.
Lewis was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and came to the United States as a child. The Tape Op posting additionally noted that, “His life went from being born to a Canadian family of a wealthy Jewish Mother and father, with six siblings to dying alone in a Los Angeles hospital. His early days were marred by his mother dying, his father dropping him and his siblings off at a the Vista Del Mar orphanage, penniless.”
He took up music lessons when he was 13 years old. The orphanage gave young Jack two options. He could take music lessons or mow the huge lawn at the orphanage. He decided that running scales on a tenor saxophone was less taxing than running miles behind a lawn mower.
Jack Lewis was interviewed by Dr. Larry Fisher in February/March of 1998. Excerpts were published in The Note, East Stroudsburg University, in two parts. Lewis recalled the first time he met Duke Ellington, an event that shaped his vocation as an A&R executive for RCA Victor.
“If you were from one of the orphanages, you could ride the bus to the theater downtown for a nickel. Before 12 o’clock I think it was 25 or 35 cents to get in. You just had to hide between shows. One night, Jimmy Lunceford was playing in LA and after every show they would clean the theater out. And we would get underneath the seats in the very top row of the balcony, and then we could stay for another show, which meant we got to see the band again. Later in the evening, we always worked our way backstage because there was always food back there for the band. One night Duke is there, and I’m not sure if it was Jimmy Lunceford or not, but finally it’s me, Duke and this other guy and Duke says “Is this kid with you?” And the other guy says “No, I thought he was with you.” I was 12 years old, man, and I had snuck out of the orphanage. So, I explained who I was and he said “You like the music that much?” and I said “Yeah!” and he said “But they’re gonna beat your ass, you snuck out.” We talked a few moments, (then) Duke says let me take you back, because now its like 10:30 at night, it’s after the last show. His driver drives me back to the orphanage with Duke and, of course, the orphanage was ablaze at the time because once a guy sneaks out and they find that he’s gone they then turn up all the lights and pull every bed back. I had a dummy in mine. I got out of this car and the head of the orphanage came over – I remember he had a bathrobe on and (was in) his pajamas – and he was really gonna lay it to me. (Just then) Duke got out (of the car). Duke was tall and elegant and the head of the orphanage recognized him immediately. So they talked a minute and Duke said “Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do.” And he told the head of the orphanage that if he let me go see Duke’s band whenever it was in town, Duke would make sure I got back (safely). They made an agreement on that. Duke really saved my ass.”
Jack Lewis was profiled in the November 14, 1956, edition of Down Beat magazine where he recounted that he lost sight in one eye in a freak accident that happened on a street corner. The Tape Op posting placed the accident in a high school setting “after a football injury where he hit his head and lost the use of an eye.” Both accounts note that Lewis was employed in the retail record business during his high school years.
“The biggest record store on the West Coast was Sam Ricklin’s California Music. That’s before any Tower Records or any other kind of record store that you ever saw. California was the state that first started the supermarket, and Sam made a record store like that. It was a huge block-long affair, and you could come in and wait on yourself. Up to that point, if you went into Music City or any other record store, you’d walk up to the counter and say, “I’d like to see Duke Ellington’s “Chloe,” and they would give you the record and you’d take it into a booth and check it out before you paid for it. Sam broke all the barriers down and people wandered around his store and picked out records for themselves. I was the buyer for his store. He also had about 1500 juke boxes and he could make a hit in those days on a juke box, man. People forget that but that’s the way it went.”
The chronology of Lewis’ various occupations during the late 1940s and early 1950s is not established clearly in the Tape Op, The Note, or the Down Beat material. At some point he worked for Gene Norman and assisted with the production of Norman’s radio programs. “I co-produced his radio show and learned a lot from him. He’s a very responsible guy. He really opened my eyes to the music scene. I gave up playing tenor. I hadn’t gone too far when I learned I wasn’t very good.” The photo with Lewis flanked by Shelly Manne and Art Pepper on his right, and Gene Norman and Shorty Rogers on his left was most likely taken at one of Gene Norman’s Just Jazz concerts.
“The guy I was working for (at RCA) was Steve Sholes, who was a pretty hip guy. He had been in charge of V-Disks … they were plastic and shellac disks that were made during the war. They had combinations of people that you just couldn’t get together any other way. (Steve) would call (around to different artists) and say This is the government calling …” and he would (record) incredible stuff. He was a very soft-spoken guy. He was in charge of country western, which was mostly western at the time, (artists) like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, who were on Columbia Records. RCA had Roy Rogers. Columbia also had Gene Autry. But Steve was also in charge of R&B and jazz, so I could make a record of anything in those three areas. I (recorded) Shorty Rogers, who had a pretty good group with Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Shelly Manne.”
“I was about 21 then, and I met two people very important to me. One was Victor’s west coast artist and repertoire man, Walt Heebner; the other was Shorty Rogers.
Lewis became assistant to the assistant manager of the RCA distributor in Los Angeles. Through the efforts of Bob York, Steve Sholes, Bill Bullock, Joe Carlton, and Mannie Sacks, RCA decided to establish a jazz category. “I came on as the A&R man. I made an album called Duke Ellington – The Seattle Concert, available on RCA. Paul Krupa and I designed the cover and we wrote the (liner) notes and the whole thing. See, that summer (1952) I went up to Seattle with Duke Ellington and recorded the whole band.”
Lewis also signed some pop artists to RCA. “I was down at a place called Dolphin’s of Hollywood on Central Avenue, which was run by a guy named John Dolphin. I went in there one day and I took a record and I went to listen to it. In the booth next to me was a group singing a song that went “The sun is shining, oh happy days” … a love song, recorded by some guy in a garage in Cleveland. And these guys were playing the record and singing it. So, I knocked on the booth and I went in there and I said “Do you guys know any other tunes?” And they said no we don’t, so I signed them. I was now a scout for RCA. The name of the group was The Robins, who eventually became The Coasters. Then, I was down there later in the week and Damita Jo and her mother were down there and they were arguing with John Dolphin because (she claimed) he hadn’t paid her. And he held out her contract and said “Why don’t you take this and get the hell out of here?” So, on the way out I signed her for RCA.”
Lewis spent a few years in Los Angeles as head of A&R jazz projects. He worked with Shorty Rogers and Leith Stevens on an album of jazz themes from Marlon Brando’s The Wild One, originally titled as Hot Blood. Some of the more memorable albums that Lewis recalled in The Note interview were Shorty Courts the Count and Charlie Barnet’s Redskin Romp. Both albums featured cover graphics by Jim Flora.
The Duke Ellington album got to the head of RCA, a man by the name of Manie Sacks, and he called me up and said “Hey kid, come up to my office.” So, I went up to see him and he was holding the Duke Ellington album, and he said “Damn, kid, how did Duke Ellington let you do this thing?” I explained it to him, and he said “Well, if Duke trusts you then I trust you.” So he says “We’ve got a position in New York City that’s opening up. How soon can you leave?” I said, “I can leave tomorrow or the next day.” I left on a Wednesday and he gave me the address of the office and I got into New York on a Friday. I (remember) I stayed at the Essex House and I couldn’t find anybody (in the city) because they all lived out in New Jersey.
“Shorty was my main arranger in California, and he’s the guy who tipped me off to Al Cohn. He said “When you get to New York look up Al Cohn, you’ll hit it off with him.” Al was just getting hot when I got to New York. He and I became fast friends. I was director of jazz in New York when I arrived there in ’53 or ’54, somewhere in there. I was trying to sign (Al) to a contract, and he didn’t know me from Adam. I said “Shorty told me to call you.” And he said “Oh yeah?” Al always had an “Oh yeah?” that sorta put you on the defensive. If you’d come up to him and say “Man, I just heard a guy last night, Al, he was sensational” and you could go on and on, and then when you would take a breath he’d say “Oh yeah, but was he good?” I talked (Al) into signing with me, and then I had to go sell RCA on it. “Who’s Al Cohn?” they said. Then I started organizing a whole stable of arrangers – Al Cohn, Bobby Brookmeyer, Ralph Burns, Manny Albam, Ernie Wilkins – because I had to make at least an album a week. See, RCA didn’t go into the LPs (right away) – they held out because they didn’t invent it. And then they were (very) far behind when they finally decided to go ahead and make them.”
RCA Victor’s recording studio in Hollywood was located at 1016 North Sycamore, a stones throw from Radio Recorders at 7000 Santa Monica Boulevard. Jack Lewis recorded Shorty Rogers at the Sycamore street studio and on his return trips to the West Coast other artists were recorded there when Jack signed them to the label. A headline in the April 20, 1955 edition of Down Beat noted that Lewis had recently conducted a marathon eight day session that captured 62 sides.
Victor Waxes West Coasters
New York—In a recent visit to the west coast, Victor jazz A&R head Jack Lewis cut 62 sides in eight days. Among the sessions cut were one with trombonist Milt Bernhart and a brass choir of nine, with rhythm section; Conrad Gozzo with strings in arrangements by Billy May; a set with a group called The Five, whose personnel can’t presently be divulged; and two trio albums with pianist Pete Jolly.
The November 20, 1955 issue of Down Beat featured a page and a half display ad with album covers of the recent West Coast sessions with Milt Bernhart, The Five, Pete Jolly, and Conrad Gozzo. The lower half of the ad highlighted albums from Lewis’ East Coast productions including The Natural Seven, Joe Newman, Sauter-Finegan, Tony Scott, Stuart McKay, and Barbara Carroll.
The next installment, Jack Lewis / East Coast, will examine the historic RCA Victor sessions that Jack Lewis produced during his brief tenure as head of A&R in New York with emphasis on his Jazz Workshop productions.