As a youngster, Gary was no stranger to the entertainment business and seemed destined make a name for himself. He appeared movies, singing and acting before the age of 13. For his 14th birthday in the summer of 1960, Gary was given a set of drums. Four years later he formed a group in the Los Angeles area with guitarists David Walker and Al Ramsey, lead guitarist David Costell, keyboard player John West, and Gary himself on drums. One day, two of the guys were late for rehearsal and when they finally arrived Gary asked "Where have you Playboys been?" And the others said "Hey, that's a good name."
In 1964 the group auditioned for a job at Disneyland without telling Disney employees about Lewis' celebrity father. The entertainment director of the park liked what he saw and heard and hired Gary and the boys on the spot to perform at the Space Bar in Tomorrowland. The boys were enthusiastically accepted by audiences from the very first night and as the word spread, it was not long before they were playing to a packed house every night. At this point the band was called Gary And The Playboys, but guitarist Dave Walker was the musical leader and sang most of the vocals.
A record producer named Snuff Garrett lived just two doors down from Gary's famous father, actor / comedian Jerry Lewis. Jerry and Snuff had a mutual friend, conductor Lou Brown, who'd worked with Jerry ever since the Martin & Lewis days. It was Brown who brought Gary Lewis to Snuff's attention. Garrett would later recall: "Lou came up to the office one day and said, 'Jerry's son Gary is playin' in a group... they're playin' out at Disneyland.' A week or so later he said, 'They're gonna rehearse at Paramount tonight. Why don't I come over and pick you up, we'll have a bite to eat and go over and see them?' So I did, and Gary was the drummer. He wasn't the singer or anything else. The next day I got to thinkin' if I could make him the singer -- I'd never heard him sing -- I thought, hey, if I can get a record cut with him, it'd be a new way to promote records -- the son of a famous entertainer!
Snuff talked it over with the group and booked some studio time for them to rehearse. When he felt they were ready, Garrett brought in a song called "This Diamond Ring", which had originally been offered to, but rejected by Bobby Vee. The session was financed by Gary's mother, Patty Lewis. During the actual recording, the Playboys were almost irrelevant, as they weren't allowed to play their instruments and their voices were used sparingly. Snuff wanted a hit, so he insisted on using trusted studio musicians. (a point that Gary disputes to this day)
Garrett recalled: "I got a piano player I knew named Leon Russell to do the arranging. My string stuff wasn't making it anymore, so I used only five pieces. I didn't use the Playboys at all except as overtones." The studio musicians included Tommy Alsup on guitar, Carol Kaye on bass, Leon Russell on keyboards and Hal Blaine on drums. To help fill out what he felt to be Gary's vocal shortcomings, Snuff brought in a session singer, too. His name was Ron Hicklin. Ron did the basic vocal track; then Snuff added Gary's voice, overdubbed him a second time, added some of the Playboys and then added more of Hicklin. "When I got through, he sounded like Mario Lanza" Snuff commented.
When the band cut "This Diamond Ring", all of the Playboys had to sign a contract with Gary and his mother Patty, and became employees of ESTA MUSIC. They were no longer a 'group' with equal participation or financing. It was at this point that they officially became known as "Gary Lewis and The Playboys".
Next came the hype. Snuff got "This Diamond Ring" onto the radio in New York City by making a deal with WINS disc jockey Murray the K., who ran a series of all-star concerts at theaters around the New York area. He was promised that if he played Lewis' record, the Playboys would do his shows. Then Snuff had his neighbor, Jerry Lewis, pull some strings to get his son onto The Ed Sullivan Show. Within a few weeks, Gary and his group were on America's top variety program. There was a problem, though. It was Sullivan's policy that all the acts appearing on his show had to perform live. Since so many studio tricks had been used on the record, there was no way the Playboys could re-create its sound. So a compromise was struck. Gary sang along with pre-recorded tracks as the Playboys faked it on instruments. According to Garrett, this marked the first time that a song had been lip-synched on the show. America didn't mind. Gary Lewis and the Playboys were instant stars. Their song "This Diamond Ring" shot up to #1 and the pressing plants ran 24 hours a day to keep up with the demand for the record.
In 1965 Gary himself was Cash Box magazine's "Male Vocalist of the Year", winning the honor over other nominees Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. He was the first and only artist during the 1960's to have his first seven releases reach Billboard's Top 10 on the Hot 100 chart. In the Philippines during this time, they were considered America's answer to the Beatles and spanning a two week period, sold out the 18,000 capacity Arianeta Coliseum for 24 performances. Along with his appearances on various popular television shows including American Bandstand, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Tonight Show, Gary accumulated an impressive five appearances within two years on the Ed Sullivan Show. However, by the end of 1965 only John West and Lewis remained in the band. Other members later included Tommy Tripplehorn (father of actress Jeanne Tripplehorn), Carl Radle, Jimmy Karstein and Dave Gonzalez.
Between 1965 and 1966, Gary Lewis and the Playboys rattled off an impressive string of hit singles. "This Diamond Ring" (#1) - "Count Me In" (#2) - "Save Your Heart For Me" (#2) - "She's Just My Style" (#3) - "Everybody Loves A Clown" (#4) - "Sure Gonna Miss Her" (#9) and "Green Grass" (#8). Despite the name of the band, Lewis projected a wholesome image. They performed in formal black suits and sported a clean-cut look, staying away from drugs and liquor.
Following his last appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Gary received his draft notice and less than a month later, on New Years Day in 1967, he officially entered the U.S. Army for a two year period. He took basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and later served in combat. Proving his dedication and his love for music, Gary spent his time on leave in the recording studio. In the remaining time that Gary was out of the country, his record company released "Sealed With A Kiss", which became yet another of his Top 20 Hits (#19).
In 1967, Gary met a Filipina lady named Jinky and married her just nine months after the two met backstage. The marriage produced one daughter, Sarah. The couple, however, divorced four years later. Gary would later say "I guess I was much too young to marry at the time. I was only 21 and I wasn't mature enough to commit. But Jinky was wonderful. I wouldn't call my marriage to her a mistake. The next three marriages were major mistakes." He's now been married five times.
Gary Lewis fared better than the offspring of other stars who had taken a run at Rock 'n' Roll. He was a talented singer, songwriter and musician. His party songs sold well in the mid-60's at the height of Beatlemania, but the psychedelic mood that prevailed in the following years made his style of music out of vogue. He did manage however to have some moderate success following his tour of duty with "My Heart's Symphony" #13 - "(You Don't Have To) Paint Me A Picture" #15 - "Where Will The Words Come From" #21 - "Girls In Love" #39 - "Jill" #52 - "Rhythm Of The Rain" #63. In total, Gary Lewis had 8 Gold Singles, 17 US Top 40 hits and 4 gold albums.
In 1971, Gary retired from performing and opened a music store in San Fernando Valley, where he sold drums, guitars and accessories. He found however, that he still had the urge to play and in 1973, put a group together called Medicine out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which included a former member of The Cowsills, Bill Cowsill. The band failed to meet with any success and Gary flew under the Rock 'n' Roll radar until one day in 1984, when a booking agent called him from Indianapolis and said "Hey, you know the 60s are coming back. I can get you 60 to 100 dates a year." Gary replied "Well, if you can do it, I'll play 'em" and put a new version of The Playboys together. Since that time, Gary and the band performed between 60 and 100 shows a year with the likes of The Grass Roots, Peter Noone, The Turtles and The Buckinghams. He also appeared and performed on many of his father's Labor Day telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
In the mid 1970s two of Gary's original hits, "My Heart's Symphony" and "Count Me In" showed up in the UK Top 10. From 1988-1989, an arrangement of Gary's hit, "She's Just My Style" was used in an Oldsmobile television advertisement. Gary has also proved successful at endorsements such as those he has done for products by Kelloggs and Coca-Cola and thanks to the lucrative deal that his mother signed for him when he first started recording, continued to collect substantial royalties from his hit records
As the new millennium rolled around, Gary was still touring North America with a group known as Gary Lewis And The Playboys. His website showed a short list of tour dates in 2012.
Looking back at his career, Gary Lewis racked up 8 Gold Singles, 17 Top 40 Hits, 4 Gold Albums and 45 Million records sold worldwide,
For more, be sure to read Gary James' interview with Gary Lewis
Playboys member John West was once a member of 'The Innocents', the band who backed up Kathy Young on her 1960 hit, "A Thousand Stars".