STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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Gary Lewis had a taste of show business by virtue of being the son of legendary comedian/actor Jerry Lewis.
Receiving impromptu drum lessons when he was 7 years old from the revered Buddy Rich, the young Gary Lewis was having a good time playing at Disneyland in a band composed of his friends from school, The Playboys, and also taking acting classes at Pasadena Playhouse. However, he said in a phone interview, “I still had no idea what to do with my life.”
Then The Beatles came along. “I said: ‘That’s what I want to do!,’” Lewis said.
A little less than a year after The Beatles took America by storm, Gary Lewis and the Playboys were on their way to No. 1 with “This Diamond Ring.” It was the first of seven consecutive top 10 singles.
The group’s run on the pop charts from 1965-68 had a major assist from two people behind the scenes, producer Snuff Garrett and songwriter Leon Russell. Lewis and Russell co-wrote the hits “She’s Just My Style” and “Everybody Loves a Clown,” while Garrett also played a managerial role in choosing and arranging the songs The Playboys recorded. “When I came into his office, he had five song demos already picked out. He was never wrong,” Lewis said of Garrett.
Lewis and his modern-day lineup of The Playboys (two of the original band members have passed away, Lewis shared) will be performing two shows Oct. 2 at Sellersville Theater, with The Rip Chords (“Hey Little Cobra,” “Three Window Coupe”). Besides “all the hits everybody knows,” the show will include songs that inspired Lewis to go into music — numbers by Del Shannon, The Clovers and Brian Hyland (who recorded “Save Your Heart for Me” and “Sealed with a Kiss” before The Playboys’ made them hits). Lewis and Playboys bassist Nick Rather also recently wrote a song called “You Can’t Go Back,” which will also be in the set.
In 1967, with the Vietnam War intensifying, “I had my seventh top 10, and I got my draft notice right after. It was like hitting a brick wall going a hundred miles an hour,” said Lewis, adding that he was living with his parents and in the process of buying a house at the time.
The singer figured that if Elvis could join the Army, and then go back to entertaining, then he could do it too. Lewis served a year-long tour of duty in South Korea. Although Lewis discovered that musical tastes had shifted toward heavier rock sounds like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin while he was in the Army, he said serving in the military was an important moment in his life. “You grow up real quick in the Army,” he commented.
Since the 1970s, Lewis has made it a point to perform at benefit shows for injured veterans organizations. Gary Lewis and the Playboys continued to tour, including the 2013 “Happy Together” package tour.
What about Jerry?
Although you haven’t seen him on the famous Labor Day telethon that bore his name, Jerry Lewis is still alive. Now 90 years old, “he’s slowed way down, but he still goes out and does shows, minus the physical comedy,” Gary Lewis said, describing his father’s public appearances as storytelling sessions with clips from his movies.