But the biggest piece of this puzzle was Gary Lewis. Musically inclined and relentlessly driven, he learned drumming from Buddy Rich, formed the band, and got a gig playing at Disneyland through an audition. Showmanship is in Gary's DNA: he's the son of Jerry Lewis, one of the biggest stars of the era. Gary, however, was determined to succeed on his own merits, and downplayed his famous father. On his hit records and TV appearances, he was never promoted as "son of Jerry Lewis" or given any special treatment, which could have come in handy when he got drafted.
Lewis entered the army at the pinnacle of his career. A few of of his songs charted while he was stationed in Korea and Saigon, but the musical landscape changed dramatically in 1967-1968, and his brand of pop was out of fashion when he returned. In the '70s, Gary opened a music store, then in the '80s he started performing again amid new demand for his early hits, and he's been playing ever since. Here, he explains how his songs were recorded, what it was like being the suddenly famous son of a famous father, and why he went to Vietnam.
Gary Lewis: Right. Because Snuff Garrett was just a customer in the park. He paid to get in with his family and saw us play. Backstage afterwards he gave me his card and said, "I'd like to talk to you about doing some recording for my label, Liberty Records." And that's just how everybody envisions, they'd love that to happen to them. And that's exactly how it happened to us.
Songfacts: Your first single was "This Diamond Ring," and that was an incredibly huge hit. Can you tell me about the recording process for that song?
Gary: We went in the studio, myself and the Playboys played on every single track we ever did. I mean, we were the track band. And so many people say Gary Lewis and the Playboys never played on anything. I've even read write-ups that said Gary Lewis didn't even sing on his records. All that is just such bull. The Playboys and I played on absolutely everything we ever did, album tunes, everything. And since we were so young and inexperienced, that's when the Wrecking Crew came in to do overdubs and solos. Now that's the absolute truth right there.
Songfacts: Tell me about the actual process of getting the song, hearing it, and recording it.
So then we came in and sang and everything. And when everybody was happy with all that, that's when whoever they used would come in and put the solos and stuff on. Because my job was done, I left most of the time after I was all done, when the Wrecking Crew came in. Tommy Tedesco, great guitar player, he played solos on some things. Guy named Larry Knetchel played piano on some things. Leon Russell played piano solos, too. And Hal Blaine, of course. He would always play cowbell or tambourine or something at the same time I was putting the drums on. And that was the process right there.
Songfacts: Were you all recording together in the same room or would one person record their track and then another person record theirs?
Gary: All four of us played - we were all in the same room. We all had to get it done as a group.
Songfacts: Were they known as "The Wrecking Crew" at the time?
Gary: Oh, no. Just very good studio musicians.
Songfacts: Do you remember the first time you heard that term, Wrecking Crew?
Gary: Yeah. It was when Denny Tedesco was interviewing me for his movie, The Wrecking Crew. That's the first time I ever heard of it. Which was about 10 years ago.
Songfacts: "This Diamond Ring" ended up becoming this huge hit and you ended up on a whirlwind promotional tour. Tell me about what happened after that song came out.
Gary: Well, naturally, we're hearing it on the radio and we're all just flipping out beyond belief, because it's getting so much airplay and they wanted us to do all the local TV shows with the song. So we were flying real, real high. And Snuffy Garrett calls us in one day and says, "Listen, you guys, I know it's exciting and all that. But you've got to calm down." He says, "You know how many one-hit artists there are out there?" He says, "We've got to concentrate on getting #2, and if we can do that, we might be our way." So he brought us right back down to earth real quick. Which was a very good thing. Because the second tune was "Count Me In," that went to #2 in the country. And he just kept going. Snuffy Garrett not only had the ability to pick hit songs, but he knew when to put them out, too. He wouldn't put out a new tune of ours if the Beatles just came out with a new tune. He'd wait for about three weeks. Let the people have the fill of the Beatles and then put it out. And it worked. The first seven were all Top Ten.
Songfacts: So when you did The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, had you already recorded "Count Me In" and maybe even another song?
Gary: Yeah. We always had things in the can. We always did. When we went into a recording session, it wasn't just to record what would be the next hit. We always recorded about four songs and put them in the can and Snuffy would listen to them with Leon Russell. They'd make whatever decisions, because I gave Snuffy total control of everything, because I didn't know what I was doing. I was too young and I didn't know anything about the business yet. So he'd have us record four or five songs at one time and complete them all and just have them in the can. Then he would put out what he wanted to put out.
Songfacts: Besides just the quality of the song, the promotion of it and the way you guys were able to perform the song and sell it to America was remarkable. Can you talk about how you guys got "Diamond Ring" to be such a hit?
Gary: Well, we were constantly on the road promoting it all the time. Right when it came out we went on a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour with about ten other acts - six to eight weeks of one-nighters. And so we were always in the public eye, and whatever town we were going into we did local TV to promote the show for that evening. So we were constantly in the public eye. I think that's what it takes, along with a good record. That's what we did all those years.
Songfacts: Tell me about the TV appearances.
Gary: Which ones?
Songfacts: Well, I'm interested to know what it is like being a teenager and showing up to do The Ed Sullivan Show, for instance.
Gary: It really wasn't any pressure whatsoever, because back then they didn't have the facilities to mix anything. No band could play live, they all had to lip-synch. So there was no pressure whatsoever.
Songfacts: Did you play live on any of the shows that you did?
Gary: We did play live when my dad hosted The Tonight Show one time for Johnny Carson, and we played live on that. And I wasn't happy with that sound after I saw that. They didn't starting mixing real well until probably about, I don't know, the middle '90s maybe. To where it sounded actually like a recording. But the TV shows were just fun, they were just absolutely fun, and it was excellent promotion. And there was no pressure musically.
Songfacts: Were you promoted as Jerry Lewis' son?
Gary: No. as a matter of fact, even people today, the audiences we have today, I go and sign after the show for them, and they say, "I just heard that your dad is Jerry Lewis, is that true?" And I think that comes from the fact that I never tried to do what he does, and he definitely doesn't do what I do. So there's a separation there.
Songfacts: But when you're looking to promote a new act, it had to be very tempting for the record company and anybody interested to say here's a new act with Jerry Lewis' son, it's Gary Lewis.
Gary: Well, going right into signing with Liberty Records, I said, "Listen, we got the Disneyland job without anybody knowing who I was," because I didn't use my last name for the first year that we were playing; in 1964, it was just Gary and the Playboys. So when we went down to Disneyland to audition, it was just Gary and the Playboys, and we went through the channels we had to go through, no favors from dad or anything like that. So we got the job, and I told everybody this is how I want to keep it. I don't want to get any jobs because I'm his son. I won't do it. I just will absolutely not do it. Because if you don't have talent, the door's going to slam in your face, anyway.
Songfacts: And nobody ever defied that?
Songfacts: Wow. That's remarkable.
Gary: Nobody ever did that.
Songfacts: I think it was about your fourth hit when you started having a co-writing role on some of the songs.
Gary: Yeah, "Everybody Loves a Clown," right.
Songfacts: Yeah. Tell me about when you started doing a co-write and how that came about.
Songfacts: What were the lyrics inspired by?
Gary: A lot of it was inspired by the clowns always being sad. There were some happy clowns, too. But famous clowns like Emmett Kelly, always sad, very, very sad. They portray like they don't fit in with anything. So that was the inspiration for the lyrics. Everybody loves a clown, so why can't you? Everybody laughs at the things that I say and do.
Songfacts: So we're reading too much into it if we think it's about your dad.
Gary: Oh, absolutely. [laughs] Yeah.
Songfacts: I also noticed that came about five years before "Tears of a Clown." This calliope idea was quite original at the time.
Gary: Oh, yeah. I dug that tune, too. That was great.
Songfacts: And then you also had a co-write on "She's Just My Style."
Songfacts: Can you talk about that song?
Gary: That was really fun. Leon and Snuffy said, "All right, let's write a song about the California coast and the beach and the surf and the sun." I said, "Oh, so you want to do like a Beach Boys thing?" And they said, "Yeah, yeah. With voices and a lot of harmonies and stuff like that." I said, "Well, great. I like the Beach Boys." They recorded in the same studio that we recorded in, too. So I was always visiting them or they were coming and visiting me on my sessions. So that's what we were going for, a Beach Boys type sound. And "Just My Style" was the second biggest tune we had for Liberty. That went to #2, but it sold way more than "Count Me In," that went to #2 also.
Songfacts: A lot of these songs are about relationships and early love type things, which had to be interesting for you guys. I would imagine you had experienced some of what you were singing about. Is that accurate at all?
Gary: Yeah. But never to the point where I felt like I had to really state a point. They were fun tunes to do. I never wanted to put so much stuff on a record that I couldn't duplicate it live. I wanted to sound exactly on stage the way the record sounded. And I still feel strongly about that today. And that's exactly what we do. So I like authenticity. I like to sound exactly like the record so that people don't have to guess, "Well, jeez, what tune is he doing?"
Songfacts: But you're not drawing on personal experience in these songs?
Gary: No, not really. A lot of people love "This Diamond Ring," but they think it's a getting together song. They say to me, "Hey, we got married because of 'This Diamond Ring.'" I say, "Really?" I mean, it's a breakup song. So I don't know.
But like in "Save Your Heart For Me," I was never hurt by a girl going away for the summer and liking some other guy and then coming home and saying, "Oh, it was just a fling and I'll hang with you, I'll stay with you." That stuff never happened. But I guess it does happen to people who take their kids on family vacations to different parts of the country, and they probably find boyfriends there or girlfriends. And then come home and they'll never see that person again. I can relate to that stuff, but it's not personal experience.
Songfacts: But the song selection was brilliant, because it did provide something different from what the Beatles were doing, and it really related to people.
Songfacts: Who did the whistling on that one?
Gary: Well, first of all, I tried it and I couldn't do it. Because you're facing the guys in the booth, you know. And they're looking at you smiling, and you just can't whistle if you're going to smile. So I tried it, and then Leon Russell came out and tried it. Snuffy came out and tried it. We eventually had to hire a whistler from the Musicians Union, and he came in and did it. Just an old guy, very straight-laced: "This is my job and I'm going to do it."
Songfacts: [laughing] You hired a whistler.
Gary: We hired a whistler. There were two guys in the union book. I know, it's funny.
Songfacts: Did they do other things, I hope, like maybe play the trombone...
Gary: Jeez, I don't know. I have no idea.
Songfacts: That is hilarious.
Gary: We looked up whistlers from Local 47 in Los Angeles. And there were two guys. [laughs] Take your pick.
Songfacts: When you got into the song "Sure Gonna Miss Her," it seems like there were a few ways you could approach that one. Were you instructed to sing that in a specific way?
Gary: No. As a matter of fact, Snuffy was always happy with my interpretation of songs. He never told me sing something a certain way. He never did. He was totally happy with however I sounded. My voice, to me now, it sounds like an inexperienced voice. And it was. But I hit the notes, I had a real good memory for listening to a demo, and I just put my feeling behind the song. And Snuff was always happy with that.
Songfacts: You clearly have a great deal of musical talent. When you first started, you were on drums, right?
Gary: I was on drums when I started, right.
Songfacts: Was that the instrument you learned first?
Songfacts: And did you learn musically, meaning you could read music, you got music lessons?
Gary: No. I went to a military school, and I played in the band, I played clarinet in the band. And that's how I started being able to read music. I stopped playing clarinet at about 16, but that's the only instrument I could read music on. And for drums, if I had to read music, it'd be easy, because it's just chord charts, you know. You don't have to know each individual note unless you're playing in a symphony or something. But drums is what I learned first, since I was five years old.
Songfacts: Why did you decide on drums?
Gary: Because this friend of my dad's kept coming over. Like every week he would come over. And my dad had a set of drums out in this house behind the main house, and this friend of my dad's kept saying, "Hey, let's go out to the drums, I'll show you some stuff." So here I am, five years old, and he would play something and I would repeat it right after him. And he kept telling me, "Yeah, you're going to be good one day. This is great." So when I'm about 14 years old, all of a sudden I realize this guy, this friend of my dad's, was Buddy Rich. And every time he'd come over he'd take me out in the back and show me things on drums. So isn't that amazing, for three to four years I was taking lessons from Buddy Rich.
Songfacts: Not only that, then you end up playing drums alongside Hal Blaine.
Gary: Yeah. Hal Blaine, I love the guy. His musical talent is just so good. He was terrific inspiration to me.
Songfacts: As a drummer, you must have a good idea of what makes somebody like Hal Blaine so talented. Can you explain what it is he does that sets him apart from other drummers?
Gary: It's knowing exactly what to play at the right time. He knows what to play and he knows when not to play something. And plus, repetition is a real good teacher, too. I mean, you do it for so many years, you've got it down. You just know what you're going to do. I mean, nothing could be thrown at the Wrecking Crew where they wouldn't know, or be confused about what to play. It was just great.
Songfacts: You then switched over to guitar to go out front.
Songfacts: Because it doesn't make too much sense for the band leader to be back in the drum kit.
Gary: Well, I couldn't see the audience because of all the cymbals, and they couldn't see me very well. But the reason that I changed was that I had much too much energy to be sitting down. I was just all over the place when I came out playing guitar, looking at the people, reacting to them and with them. It was that much fun.
Songfacts: At what point did you end up becoming the guitarist rather than the drummer in the band?
Gary: The end of '66.
Songfacts: Wow. So it took a while. Most of your appearances early on were with you back in the drum kit.
Gary: Right. And now when we do shows, I still go back and play one tune on drums.
Gary: I didn't try to get out of it at all. I got my draft notice, and the first thing that popped into my mind was Elvis did it, I'm doing it. That's all there is to it. I must admit, though, I didn't think my kind of music would change over so damn fast. Because here I am in basic training in the Army and this new guy comes along, Jimi Hendrix. And then Janis Joplin. And The Doors. And I'm doing, Oh, great. Now where do I fit into this? So I didn't bother with music from '72 to '84. I bought a music store in California and sold guitar equipment and drums and everything, gave lessons on drums. It was a pretty good living up until '84, when this one agent from Indiana called me and said, "Hey, man, the '60s are coming back." Yeah, right. Okay. He says, "No, really, I can get you 60 to 100 dates a year, I'm sure of it." I said, "Well, if you can do it, I'll play 'em." And that's exactly what's been happening since '84.
Songfacts: But when you got drafted, you were an enormous star, and a lot of people were relying on you for their livelihood. Didn't anybody try to talk you out of it?
Gary: No, not at all, as a matter of fact. A couple of my friends said, "Go to Canada." I said, "Yeah, great, so I can never come back, right?" No, that was not an option. I wanted to go. And I did. I just went. Period.
So after all the basic training and stuff like that, the Army says to me, "Why don't you get a band together from people on the base and just go around the country and do shows for us, Special Services." And I said, "I don't want to do that. I've got to live with these guys in the barracks, and you're going to show me favoritism? Not good. Not good at all." So I said, "Please, just give me a job to do and let me do it." So they say, "Well, how about Saigon, then?" "Oh." [laughs] So I went over there for a few months. They put me in a holding company because they had no idea what they wanted to do with me. I'm sure they were thinking of "political ramifications" of putting me in the field somewhere. I don't know what they were thinking. But anyway, I saw no action. And then they sent me to South Korea to finish up my foreign tour of duty.
Songfacts: Well, I'm sure they didn't want to get you killed.
Gary: I guess not. [laughing]
Songfacts: That's got to be a pretty hard burden on somebody, "Here's a famous star in your company, try not to get him killed." Of course I'm not going to put you in combat.
Gary: So I just sat in a holding company for three months until they decided what they wanted to do with me. I guess that classifies me as a Vietnam vet.
Songfacts: Well of course.
Gary: Yeah, I was there.
Songfacts: But when you said you wanted to go, is that because you felt politically that it was the right thing to do? Can you explain why you wanted to go? I just don't get that.
Gary: I just knew within me it was the right thing to do. Plus, if I fought to get out of it, look at all the bad press. Look at how people would look at me. I'm glad I had the insight to see that at such an early age. I didn't think it was the right thing to try to get out of it at all.
Songfacts: I guess it's different, because you were already a star. A lot of times we hear about guys like Ted Nugent and Gregg Allman who shot himself in the foot, and they didn't need to explain anything to anybody, because they weren't famous yet. Whereas you were already famous, so if you did get out of the draft, then you'd have some explaining to do.
Gary: It would have been bad. I just knew it. I mean, I just felt it.
Songfacts: I once spoke with this guy named Oliver Lieber, and he's a very successful producer, songwriter. He explained some stuff that I'd never considered before. He said that when you have a very famous father who can be kind of distant, that the urge to make it on your own can be overwhelming and you spend your whole life doing that. And his father, of course, was Jerry Lieber. Can you talk about how you felt having a famous father in the industry?
Gary: Well, I was very proud of him and his work. His work was great. Even today I watch his movies when they come on. I loved him and respected his work tremendously. But at a very early age, I realized this is not what I want to do. If I do anything remotely close to what my dad does, I'll never have my own identity, I'll always be compared to him, and that would be bad for any person to have to go through. I know there are stars' sons that have made it on their own, sons and daughters. But I didn't even want to give that a shot. I didn't even want to try it. Plus, I loved music. I wanted to get into music so bad, but I just didn't have the push, the drive. And then the Beatles came out. That gave me the push and drive.
I rehearsed with the band almost an entire year before we got the Disneyland job, building up a repertoire and getting things ready to go audition for gigs without any mention of the family name or anything like that. I really wanted to do it by myself. And my dad didn't even know that I had a band until "Diamond Ring" was almost to #1.
Gary: That's right. My mom, she was great about it. She says, "Yeah, I'll buy you the equipment, you can rehearse here at the house when your dad's out of town." And she said, "I really hope it works, because if it doesn't, I'm going to have to explain where this money went." So "Diamond Ring" is climbing the charts and she says, "Now you can tell him."
Songfacts: One advantage to having a show business family is that sometimes it can keep you from signing some really bad contracts. Did you manage to keep some royalties and still get some earnings from your work?
Gary: I get royalties from three companies to this very day. I was only 19 when I started, so my mom and dad's lawyers looked at all those contracts and they signed a real, real good deal to where I never stopped getting my royalties. And as a matter of fact, my records just keep selling and selling and selling, and the royalties even to this day are getting bigger and bigger. So my parents made a deal that made sure I got writing, publishing and artist royalties forever. So that's still working out really good.
Songfacts: So even on a song that you didn't write, you still get paid for it if it gets played or used?
Gary: I get royalties, yeah.
Songfacts: Did your dad teach you anything about the industry?
Gary: He didn't have a conscious effort of teaching me show business. I observed my entire life. I was always on the sets when he was doing his movies. I observed show business, and I observed him talking to agents and lawyers and all that stuff. So I picked it up just by observing my entire life.
Songfacts: That's interesting. That's the exact same thing that Jerry Lieber's kid said. He said his dad never taught him how to be a producer or songwriter, but he was around it hanging out in the control room and he just absorbed it. That, and also a certain genetic thing. You can't get away from it if that's what is in your blood.
Gary: Right. That's exactly it.
Gary: I guess everything evolves a little bit. I wanted to keep it simple enough so we can do it onstage. But that's how I feel today. That's the music that I like to listen to today. Just straight ahead rock and roll. And that's what I like to do. And I'm getting all kinds of good feedback on it from the computer and Facebook and Twitter.
Songfacts: Tell me about how you came up with the song.
Gary: Well, that one does have kind of a personal thing to it. The same thing happened to my bass player, who wrote it with me. About how you're so in love with somebody and they just totally break your heart and leave town. And it takes you so long to get over it. And then you successfully finally get over this chick, and she comes back into town after about a year or two and she wants to try to get it started up again. You've already successfully dumped her out of your brain. And the conflict that it puts you through, like oh my God, I do still love her and everything, but I don't want this pain again. And that's where the tune came from.
Songfacts: Either you or your bass player was able to figure out musically how to structure this thing really well.
Gary: Yeah. My bass player arranged it. So I did like the structure of it. Actually, he sang on the bridge of the song. I don't know if you noticed that there were two voices.
Songfacts: I did notice that, yeah. The only other thing I wanted to clear up - what was the origin of your name? Were you born Gary Lewis?
Gary: I was born Cary Levitch. My dad went to court when I was two years old to change his name from Joseph Levitch to Jerry Lewis, and somehow my name got included on that document to where they put Gary Lewis on that same document to be changed. So it must have been a typo that they saw Gary instead of Cary. I don't really know how that happened, but that's how it was explained to me by my mom, that they just made a mistake and put "Gary" down there. And later on when I was able to think, I said, "Oh, man, I'm glad they made that mistake. I like Gary a lot better." I didn't want to be Cary. I don't like that name.
Songfacts: When did you stop being known as Cary and start being known as Gary?
Gary: Two. Two years old.
Songfacts: But it wasn't your call what your mother decided to call you. If she named you Cary, I would think she would just call you that.
Gary: She did name me Cary for Cary Grant.
Songfacts: But even though some legal document starts saying that you're Gary, she observed that and started calling you Gary right away?
Gary: Yeah. Which I'm glad.
Songfacts: That's remarkable. I just can't imagine having a child and then two years later starting to call that child something else.
Gary: The name was different, but it must have been close enough for her. [laughs]
Songfacts: That is really funny.
Gary: And one other thing, too. Just to clear up a lot of misconception, I was born July 31st, 1945. So many articles in print say '46, but it's '45. I was born a week before they dropped the bombs on Japan.
We spoke with Gary Lewis on March 8, 2012. Get more at garylewisandtheplayboys.com.
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