FEW MUSICAINS ARE EVER in the position to inspire and influence their peers to such an extent that they receive universal credit as the primary stylistic kingpin of a particular regional scene, but such was the case with Seattle’s Dave Lewis. He was a true trendsetter and trailblazer. As the leader of the Dave Lewis Combo in the late-‘50s he not only helped give definition to a unique regional sub-strain of R&B music that would over time come to be known as the “Original Northwest Sound” but Lewis’ popularity among local white kids also contributed significantly to the breakdown of racial barriers by opening up rooms that had previously excluded black musicians.
Lewis’ musical beginnings trace way back
to the 1940s when as a child he began receiving music theory lessons
from his guitarist father, Eddie, and piano lessons from his mother,
Bertha. One of the neighborhood kids who also studied under Mr. Lewis
was named Quincy Jones. By ’56 Lewis and a few pals formed a band called
the Dave Lewis Combo. Before long this young R&B band gained a
reputation for their hot dual horn arrangements and Lewis’ skillful
arranging and piano work – he once cited local jazzer, Ray Charles, as
an early influence. The Dave Lewis Combo was soon hired to open for
traveling stars who toured through the Northwest.
As the region’s first competent teenaged
R&B band, the combo was hired to open for touring stars including
Sugar Chile Robinson, “Wild” Bill Davis, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis,
and Roy Orbison. Then around 1959 the combo cut their sole 45 “Barney’s
Tune” and soon scored the position as houseband at Birdland where their
afterhour sets became the hangout for musicians for years. It was while
based here that Lewis firmly established his sound and forged the
beginnings of a recognizable regional teen-R&B sound. It should be
more than a mere historical footnote that it was Lewis’ Combo that
introduced many locals to “Louie Louie,” the tune that became our
region’s signature song.
[NOTE: This essay was originally published by The Rocket Magazine in April, 1998.]
Copyright ©, 1998, Peter Blecha