IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT TO OVERSTATE Dave Lewis’ contribution to the Northwest music scene. His distinctive organ style, instrumental arrangements, and pop/R&B compositions influenced a generation of local dance bands.  In the mid-1950s, AM radio playlists in Seattle were loaded with songs by established mainstream acts like Les Paul & Mary Ford, Pat Boone and Kay Starr.

“That was the Top-10,” recalled Lewis in a recent interview. “But I wanted to do something…I wanted to play for dancing, and we tried to find records that were, I guess, black-oriented, and we tried to introduce them to the people. And I think that’s what got us over. Because here in Washington there wasn’t a big opening for underground R&B music.”

His first group, the 5 Checks, formed at Meany Jr. High School for a talent show. Later they sang their doo-wop songs at neighborhood house parties, YMCA gigs, and even a few shows downtown at the old Palomar Theater. Later, while attending Garfield High, that act morphed into the Dave Lewis Combo who worked to build their reputation as Seattle’s first notable teenaged rockin’-R&B band. They played community centers, dance halls, proms, and eventually were hired to open shows for many of the seminal rockers of that era who had begun touring through the region. The Combo traveled the early circuit with the likes of Bill Haley and his Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and numerous other stars.

In 1957 the Combo were offered the chance to become the house band at Seattle’s popular after-hours nightclub, the Birdland (23rd Avenue & Madison Street), and they became a local sensation. Young musicians from all around the Northwest flocked here to hear the sounds, and the Combo began welcoming players to sit in and jam. It was also at Birdland here that the Combo eventually auditioned for Bumps Blackwell – the former Seattle bandleader who had gone off to Los Angels and has since managed stars like Little Richard and Sam Cooke. Blackwell liked the band but noted that they were playing all cover songs, instead of originals. So he passed on working with them…

But that rejection sparked them to begin formalizing some of their original riffs into actual songs. In 1960 they recorded their debut single which included “Barney’s Tune” as written by one of their ace sax-men, Barney Hilliard. Their second single featured Lewis’ “Candido” which he titled after the nickname of his pal and eventual drummer, Don Mallory, backed with a Twist-era tribute to their musical hero Ray Charles: “R.C. (Untwistin’).”

By 1961 Lewis was leading a trio at Dave Levy’s jazz club, Dave’s Fifth Avenue, located right across the street from the new Seattle’ Center – the site of 1962’s Century 21 World’s Fair. Throughout that exposition the Dave Lewis Trio packed crowds in and the following year saw Lewis switch from piano to electric organ and sign a record deal with Herb Alpert’s new A&M Records. Albums and many more singles followed, with a few becoming sizeable hits on Northwest radio.

That the “Dave Lewis Sound” made a big impact is undeniable. Scores of early Northwest rock bands covered his tunes, including: the Kingsmen (“David’s Mood,” “J.A.J.,” and “Little Green Thing”); the Counts (“And Then I Cried”); the Dynamics (“Candido” and “J.A.J.”); Don & the Goodtimes (“Lip Service”); and the Courtmen (“David’s Mood”).

But then, after playing six-nighters steadily until 1980, Lewis entered into a “semi-retirement stage.” But, “I started dreaming about…I wanted an orchestra…but, I didn’t want it formatted to the old-style orchestra. I wanted an orchestra that played funk. That’s my thing! I still prefer to have people dancing to the music I play.”

In the last year-and-a-half, Lewis’ 20-piece ensemble has performed at the Music Hall and Paramount Theater concerts with Quincy Jones, Gladys Knight, and the Gap band. They also recently kicked off the new Gasworks Park Summer Music Series.

[Note: This is an edited version of an essay that originally appeared in the “Northwest Music Archives” column of Seattle’s The Rocket magazine back in September, 1983.]

Text copyright © 1983, 2014 by Peter Blecha.