He had his first hit with a song called "This Diamond Ring". He went on to enjoy seven Top Ten singles between 1965 and 1966. You know the songs: "Count Me In", "Save Your Heart For Me", "Everybody Loves A Clown", "She's Just My Style", "Sure Gonna Miss Her" and "Green Grass".
His name is Gary Lewis and his group was Gary Lewis and The Playboys.
Gary talked about his records, his Rock 'n' Roll days and what he's doing now.
Q - Before I ask you about your days with The Playboys, I see that you were in a band called Medicine out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. How successful was that group?
A - Not successful at all. It was just something I thought I would try because most of the original Playboys were from Tulsa, Oklahoma. So, I knew a lot of musicians back there. Our arranger was Leon Russell and he was from Tulsa. He got me the original Playboys. So, knowing a lot of people from back there, I decided let's go back there and see what we can do. I was also in that band with Bill Cowsill. It was me and Bill Cowsill and a bunch of Tulsa guys.
Q - Was Bill Cowsill the Cowsill that lost his life to Hurricane Katrina?
A - Yeah, that was him. * see editor's note below *
Q - What year did you put that band together?
A - 1973 I believe.
Q - Didn't you have a music store in San Fernando Valley in 1971?
A - Right.
Q - You were giving guitar and drum lessons?
A - Correct.
Q - How much were you charging for lessons?
A - Depended if you wanted a half-hour, an hour or two.
Q - OK, half an hour.
A - Half an hour - 35 bucks.
Q - That's not too bad, considering who's giving you the lessons.
A - Yeah. It's probably be more expensive nowadays. I mean that's actually what I did. I just sold guitars, drums and amps and all the accessories and gave lessons. I did that from about '71 to '84, when an agent called me from Indianapolis and said "Hey, you know the 60s are coming back." I said "Get out of here!" (laughs) He said "Yeah, man. I can get you 60 to 100 dates a year." I said "Yeah. Sure. Great. Well, if you can do it, I'll play 'em." And sure enough, since '84 we've been doing like 60 to 100 dates a year.
Q - Where do you perform?
A - State Fairs. County Fairs. Usually I like to play package shows for the bigger arenas because it's just too hard to fill 10,000 seats by yourself. When I'm on shows, it's usually with The Grass Roots or Peter Noone, The Turtles, The Buckinghams. Then we can fill up those big auditoriums.
Q - Would there be any original Playboys in the group today?
A - No. Just me. And the original Playboys were only in the band for two years because in '67 I got drafted and went into the Army and they had to find other jobs. After I stopped playing drums in the band, I hired a guy named Jim Keltner, who played drums. Then Carl Radle was the bass player and went on to be with Derek And The Dominos with Eric Clapton after I went into the service.
Q - Did any of the original Playboys continue on with music that you know of?
A - Yeah. One of 'em went into banking. He's a vice-president of some bank in Chicago and the other guy is just a local musician who plays clubs in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Q - And telling people; hey, I used to be one of Gary Lewis' Playboys and they say, sure you were.
A - (laughs) Well, he's got tons of pictures to show 'em plus on my website ( GaryLewisAndThePlayboys.com ) I've got pictures of all the original guys. It was just all their choice. They didn't want to leave what they were pretty well established into to come back and play Rock 'n' Roll. They had families. They figured it's pretty unstable. I said "Well, whatever you think. It's not unstable as far as I'm concerned."
Q - So, when you got out of the service, you wanted to pick up the pieces and get back out there again?
A - Yeah. Right.
Q - At that point, Pop music had changed.
A - Well, Hard Rock had come it. When I was in the service, I started hearing on jukeboxes around the bases, people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin. I'm saying who is this? What is this kind of music? I was kind of worried about it because I didn't want to have to play that kind of music just to stay in the business. I hate singing and playing out of my style. I don't do it even in 'live' shows. I stick with what I'm known for, what I'm comfortable with, and that's it. That was the major motivation for buying the music store.
Q - Who came up with the name The Playboys? Was that you?
A - Yeah, I came up with it. But, there's really no story behind it. It was just one of those silly little dumb things that happen. Two of the guys were late for rehearsal one day and I just said "Where have you Playboys been?" And they all went "Hey, that's a good name." So, it's really nothing.
Q - I'm gonna assume that when you were growing up you had people like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin coming through your house.
A - Oh, sure.
Q - I don't know if you had a garage or a room in the house.
A - (laughs) Yeah. We had a room in the house. But, we had to rehearse when my dad wasn't home because my mom was financing the whole deal and she told me "Hey, if this venture fails, I gotta come up with some kind of excuse on where this money went. So don't tell your father anything about it."
Q - Now, this bothers me. You mean to tell me, your father if asked wouldn't have given you the money to put a group together or to record a demo?
A - Well, I don't know. I was only 18 when I started the band. I'm asking my mom all these things..."Hey mom, buy us these amps. Buy us this set of drums. This is what we need and we need the microphones." She was kind of like scared about having to get that stuff for us. So, I figured my dad was gonna be pretty tough about it. So, when she said don't tell him, I said OK. If we can get the stuff, I won't tell him. (laughs) So, that's how it went.
Q - I would have thought he would say "Give the kid what he wants!"
A - Well, it worked out pretty good because when "This Diamond Ring" started climbing the charts, when it was up to about 50 on the Billboard charts and it had a bullet, my mom said "OK. Now we can tell your dad." I told my dad about it and he said "Oh, man. That's great. I don't care what you do in life as far as a career, just as long as you love it with all your heart and give it a hundred per cent. I only ask one thing, don't grow your hair like those damn Beatles!"
Q - Oh boy.
A - (laughs)
Q - And you never did.
A - I never did, no, 'cause I was still living at home. I'm no fool.
Q - Why wasn't there a Dino, Gary and Billy rather than a Dino, Desi and Billy?
A - They were like 5 years younger than I was. When I was 18, they were only 13. So, the thought never would've crossed my mind.
Q - How would you rate yourself as a singer?
A - I think I'm a much better singer now than when I started. I was totally inexperienced. I had a very inexperienced voice. I've learned how to hold my notes the right way. I've learned how to be on pitch, whereas in the beginning, the singing was OK, but I can really hear inexperience in my voice.
Q - The reason I ask is, your producer Snuff Garrett said "Gary wasn't a very good singer. When I got through mixing him, he sounded like Mario Lanza." Wow!
A - That didn't bother me at all, 'cause it was the truth. I wasn't a very good singer. If he would've told me that back then, then I probably would've been upset about it because of young ego and all that stuff. But, he was right. I was an inexperienced singer that needed help with doubling voices and echo. And that's fine. I don't have any of that stuff when I sing 'live'. Everybody enjoys it. I enjoy it.
Q - If we are to believe what Snuff Garrett is saying here, he's saying he can take anyone off the street and make them into a popular singer and we both know that didn't happen.
A - No.
Q - So, there's something else going on here.
A - I had the basic stuff you need to record. I could sing on pitch. I knew the notes. I could hear a song once or twice and have it memorized. I didn't have to look at the words to sing. I had what it took, but I was just brand new and it wasn't developed yet. So, I did have the basics of it. I wasn't like a terrible singer that you throw echo on and it's gonna sound good. A bad singer is not gonna sound good with anything you do.
Q - How did you sound 'live' when you went out to perform?
A - I never thought about that stuff. People bought the records. I had million sellers, Gold records. I figured, hey, people like it. (laughs) I must be doing the right thing. That's the way I looked at it when I was young.
Q - Snuff Garrett goes on to say about your group, "They weren't very good. They sounded like any other group I've ever heard. But then I got to thinking, if I could do a record with Gary and get Jerry to help promote it, it might do well." So, did your father help promote "This Diamond Ring"?
A - No. My dad didn't do one thing. He didn't do one thing. I believe that about Snuffy. He's the most materialistic man I've ever known in my life. So, of course he's gonna be looking for the big buck and the big help. That much I can say about him. He did have talent for picking songs. He knew the timing of when to put 'em out and he was a great producer. His god was money and it probably still is.
Q - He saw you when you were performing at Disneyland?
A - Right.
Q - Where were you performing at Disneyland?
A - We were in the Space Bar in Tomorrowland. That's where we were playing for June, July and August of 1964. So, he gives me his card after the show and says "I'm head of A&R at Liberty Records. I'd like to talk to you about doing some recording. I like the way the band sounds." He didn't even know who my dad was when he was asking me that. So, there's some hypocrisy involved here.
Q - Since you didn't have long hair, how did you look on stage? Were you wearing the high-heal Cuban boots?
A - No. I did like The Beatles' look...the black velvet collar on the suits. So, we had some of those made up. But we had short hair. We did have Beatle boots, but they weren't those high Cuban type.
Q - What were you singing on stage?
A - Oh, we were doing just all covered tunes. We had no tunes of our own. And that's all they wanted. They just wanted a dance band.
Q - And people were dancing as you played?
A - Oh, yeah. It was great. I've still got 16 millimeter films of those jobs. It was just great.
Q - That's something you should work on for a Gary Lewis And The Playboys history video.
A - Yeah. I'm doing it. I'm putting an entire DVD of all the clips I've got for over 43 years.
Q - That's gonna be some DVD!
A - It is.
Q - The 60s have come back! People are re-discovering the artists of the 60s.
A - I totally agree with that. When the 60s finally did come back, like around, I don't know...mid to late 80s, it came back to re-claim its permanent place. The 60s are here forever now. My parents still liked to listen to Big Band music. That's what they grew up with. That's what their memories are. And that's exactly what's happening with the people of today.
Q - Your songs still sound good.
A - Thank you. That's the way I like to do them on stage. I don't add anything. I do it exactly like the people remember it, and everybody's always happy. I see the faces of the people in the crowd, man, and they are smiling and bouncing in their seat the whole time. I'm talking about 60 year old people. They're having a ball.
Q - What's the story on Hal Blaine and your songs? Is that you playing drums on those records, or is it Hal Blaine?
A - I played drums on everything we did. He played drums on maybe a few album tunes and he did some overdub drumming stuff. I played drums on everything. Hal would play on them. He would play either a tambourine or the cowbell or the tympanis or put a high-hat overdub over something if Snuffy wanted to sweeten something up. On a few albums tunes that were pretty intricate and I didn't have the experience for it, Hal did play on them.
Q - And The Playboys also played on those records?
A Yes. We played on every single basic track there was. Snuffy would call in some better musicians to put on solos or some kind of overdubbing, and that was fine. We weren't equipped to do that. But, we knew enough to where we played all the basic tracks.
Q - Leon Russell and Al Kooper were writing all your hit songs?
A - I didn't write "Diamond Ring", "Count Me In", "Save Your Heart For Me". Me and Leon and Snuffy wrote "Everybody Loves A Clown" and "She's Just My Style". Then "Sure Gonna Miss Her" was a guy named Bobby Russell from Nashville. "Green Grass" was also two guys out of Nashville, Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook. "My Heart Symphony" was written by Glen D. Hardin, who also wrote "Count Me In".
Q - So after "This Diamond Ring" went to number one, you started to tour?
A Oh, yeah. Immediately. The very first tour we ever did was a Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars tour with Gene Pitney as the headliner. The other acts were Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs, Brian Hyland, Bobby Goldsboro. I can't remember everybody else. We only had one hit and we were already on the bus tours. While we were on that tour, "Count Me In" came out. So, while we were still on that tour, "Count Me In" was going to the Top Ten also.
Q - Was the bulk of your income coming from personal appearances?
A - Yeah. Well, you know when I was negotiating a contract, I was still a minor, so I couldn't sign anything. My mom acted as our manager. She knew show business real well, being married to my dad, plus having her own career in music. So she set up a really, really good contract with Liberty Records, to where even to this day, I still get great artist royalty checks.
Q - Rhino Records re-issued your "Greatest Hits" CD as "14 Sides of Classic 60s Wimp Rock".
Q - Wimp Rock. That's a new one. I've never heard that before.
A - Me either. It was probably just some word that was popular at the time that they went around. Who knows? The word probably came from some guy who was so far into Heavy Metal he couldn't think straight and he was working for Rhino. So he says, "what am I gonna call this stuff? I'll call it Wimp Rock."
Q - You could apply that term to anyone who was singing a sad love song at the time. I just don't understand that terminology.
A You know, people can call it whatever they want, because I'll cry all the way to the bank. The hell with 'em. (laughs)
Q - How come you couldn't have gotten out of the Draft?
A - Well, I don't know. I had a really good role model. When I was thinking about getting out of the Draft, I thought of Elvis going into the service at the height of his career and doing what he had to do for his country without complaining. So, thinking of how Elvis did that, I thought to myself, I'm going to do the same thing and I'm going to be proud the rest of my life for it, and I am. It's just amazing how many Vietnam vets come up to me at these shows and thank me for doing what I was supposed to do. So, I wouldn't change that for anything.