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Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Boomers Made Gary Lewis Famous

Entering a store recently, Mister Boomer immediately recognized the music playing as Count Me In by Gary Lewis & the Playboys. Walking through the aisles, it transported him back to his boomer-boyhood bedroom with his transistor radio. There, as a pre-teen, he’d listen to the local radio stations that played rock and pop music. The songs of Gary Lewis & the Playboys were among the first memorable tunes Mister B latched onto during his formative years.

The son of comedian and actor Jerry Lewis, Gary’s interest in music was stoked when he received a drum set for his fourteenth birthday in 1960. Four years later he formed a band called Gary & the Playboys, installing himself as the band’s drummer. He didn’t use his last name because he didn’t want people to connect him with his famous father, and therefore give him favorable treatment based on his name alone. His father, however, was not enthusiastic about his rock ‘n roll leanings, so Gary kept him out of the loop when it came to his band. In contrast, his mother, Patti Palmer Lewis — a one-time singer in a band herself — was supportive both verbally and financially. When the fledging band had a chance to audition for a slot at Disneyland, they jumped at it. The Disney people were impressed with the band’s youthful exuberance and boy-next-door looks and hired them. It was while playing at Disneyland in 1964 that producer Snuff Garrett “discovered” Gary and started their musical collaboration.

Their partnership produced immediate returns, with the help of financing from Lewis’ mother to record This Diamond Ring. The record was released in January 1965, and climbed the charts to number one by the third week in February. The song was written by Al Kooper, Bob Brass and Irwin Levine, and produced by Garrett. Kooper in particular was not enamored with the choice of Lewis to record his song; he had the Drifters in mind. He also voiced concern over the band’s level of musicianship and Lewis’ vocal ability. Garrett met the objections by hiring The Wrecking Crew, made famous by being labeled Phil Spector’s “house band” during his “wall of sound” recordings. Leon Russel joined the Crew on keyboards, and arranged the music for This Diamond Ring. Together, the Crew were known as super-session musicians who appeared on more than one hundred hit recordings, including those by The Monkees, Sonny & Cher, Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys. The contribution of The Wrecking Crew to the Pet Sounds album was documented in the 2014 movie, Love & Mercy. The Playboys only played backing tracks on the record, and Lewis’ voice was overdubbed with session singer Ron Hicklin. Neither were rare occurrences in the days when record companies held all the cards when it came to recordings.

Meanwhile, even Lewis didn’t have confidence in his singing ability. Garrett got Lewis to take vocal lessons, and recruited Buddy Rich to give him some pointers on his drumming. Despite his earlier reticence, Garrett persuaded Gary’s father, Jerry Lewis, to lobby to get his son on The Ed Sullivan Show. In look and sound, Gary Lewis & the Playboys were groomed to be America’s answer to the British Invasion bands like Gerry & the Pacemakers and Herman’s Hermits. The band landed a gig. Ed Sullivan required bands to play live, but since the record had been heavily produced in the studio, during their appearance on December 6, 1964, Lewis sang the song to a pre-recording while the band mimicked playing. Nonetheless, the broadcast one month before the release of the record helped propel This Diamond Ring to the top of the charts. It wouldn’t be long, though, before Garrett took Lewis out from behind the drum kit and made him the front man.

In the next year and a half, the band racked up an impressive series of hits, though band members came and went. The band was only one of two artists of the 1960s to have their first seven releases hit Billboard’s Top 10 (the other being The Lovin’ Spoonful). This Diamond Ring was followed with Count Me In (which reached number two), Save Your Heart for Me, Everybody Loves a Clown, She’s Just My Style and Sure Gonna Miss Her. Despite the success of This Diamond Ring, the band was not able to reach the top of the charts again.

Like many other rock ‘n rollers before him, including Elvis, Lewis was drafted into the Army in January of 1967. He served his time in Seoul, South Korea, narrowly escaping being sent to Vietnam. Even before his Army stint, most of the original band members had moved on, but when he returned, he started up the band again, replacing any of guys unable or unwilling to continue, but the band could not gain any momentum. They officially disbanded in 1970. Lewis tried a solo career for a few years, then drifted into the oldies circuit, where he continues to perform to this day.

As far as Mister Boomer is concerned, the Gary Lewis song that most resonated with him was She’s Just My Style. Its release coincided with his first major crush, a long-haired blonde girl at his school. Every time he heard the song, he saw visions (in slow motion, of course), of the girl walking down the school hallway, sweater tied around her neck and hair blown by unseen winds. She may have been just his style, but she epitomized the out-of-my-league girls Mister B would pine for in his boomer school days.

What was your favorite Gary Lewis & the Playboys song, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Music,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)