Late last summer, my daughter told me that her friend’s dad is a "rock star." Well, I had to see for myself and sure enough, my daughter was right — Kenny Lee Lewis is both guitarist and bassist for the Steve Miller Band.
Interestingly, I've had numerous conversations with Kenny's wife, Diane, because our daughters attend the same middle school and are good friends. However, most of our talks were centered on our girls and teenage stuff. This past fall, the Lewis family was gracious enough to have my daughter over for Thanksgiving dinner and it was around that time I met Kenny.
As spring arrived, our girls started softball season. Because the Lewis' are supportive parents, they show up at every game, accompanied by their cute dog — arising another friendship: Sophie and my dog, Shorty. So, one day at a softball game, I had a thought and asked, “Kenny do you still like being in the limelight?” Kenny looked at me bewildered, not quite sure where I was headed (which was hitting him up for an exclusive interview for Blogcritics).
What I did know going into this interview is that Kenny and Diane are both in the music business, and more importantly, it is obvious that they are great at their most precious “gig,” raising two terrific daughters, who possess talent of their own.
This past weekend, on a beautiful afternoon here on the Central Coast of California, I arrived at the Lewis home with my daughter, dog, and notepad in tow. Lewis greeted me with his “cat that ate the canary” smirk and gift of storytelling –– and we sat outside and had a two-hour chat.
We discussed his lengthy music background, the music business in general as well as what really happens behind the scenes of a famous band. We briefly reminisced about some of the Steve Miller Band hits that I had listened to back when I was a teenager and young adult such as "Living In The USA," "The Joker," "Fly Like an Eagle," and others.
My interview proved to go better than anticipated. It revealed that Lewis is a gifted and multi-talented musician, who “rocks” with the best and also shines as a jazz artist. And dang, can Lewis play the guitar (as seen below in a 2006 video clip from the Shoreline Ampitheatre, shredding away with fellow guitar great Joe Satriani).
Lewis is no stranger to the music business. Back in the 70's he was a very successful studio bass player in LA. It was in 1978 that Lewis landed a record deal on EMI/UA with his own band, Pieces. Later in 1981, Lewis joined up with another band, Gerard McMahon and Kid Lightening. He became a songwriting partner with notable drummer Gary Mallaber, who had been a part of the many Steve Miller Band's hits from the 70’s. Lewis and Mallaber even started a band called, Robby Yubop (Yeah, it was named after beer induced belch-talk, Lewis explained).
After three decades, Kenny Lee Lewis is still "rockin" with Miller, and is very active with other projects. Toss in a movie script Lewis has written that is now under production, two novels in the works, and his recent solo instrumental smooth jazz CD, New Vintage, and you begin to wonder: does this guy ever sleep?
So Kenny, how did you get involved with the Steve Miller Band?
Lewis: Back in late 1981, Steve Miller called Mallaber and told him he was looking for material for his next album for Capitol Records. Miller took all eight of our Tascam 80-8 masters, and transferred them to 24-track format –– [translation: Miller used all of the Lewis and Mallaber songs, which included Lewis on guitar, bass and vocals as well as Mallaber on drums]. These songs ended up on the hit album, Abracadabra, which was released in the spring of 1982, selling over five million copies worldwide.
One day, Miller called me and said, “I’m taking pictures tomorrow for the Abracadabra record, how would you like to be in the band?’ "Since you played on over half the record, you might as well join my band and tour with me!"
Did you say yes, right away?
Lewis: No, I was hesitant because I was very active as a thriving studio bass player in LA. I also discussed it with my then girlfriend (now wife) Diane Steinberg, and consulted with the big name producers that I was working for at that time. Since I had moved to LA to promote my original music, I realized that this was my opportunity to do so, even though I would have to sacrifice my successful studio musician career. A day later, I was in the band.
Looking back, did you make the right choice?
Lewis: Yes, because with the advent of digital sampling and other technological advancements, the need for studio musicians has lessened over the last twenty years to the point where there is only a handful of musicians left making a decent living in that business. Live classic rock bands are doing great selling tickets to live concert performances. They can rely on classic rock radio formats without needing to have new hits on music stations or record sales.
So, do you want to hear a story that most people don't know about? It has to do with what transpired behind the delayed success of Abracadabra and it has never been exposed publicly.
Sure, give me some dirt…[mischievous smirk, writing as fast as I could]!
Lewis: Capitol Records did not release a single off of the Abracadabra album when it came out: they suggested to Miller that he “grease the palms” of the DJ’s using "payola" (an illegal practice of payment, or "pay-for-play" in the music industry). Miller refused and Capitol Records declined to spend any money on promotion and let Abracadabra disappear off the record charts.
Miller only had U.S. and Canada distribution deals with Capitol Records; yet, he had another label deal with PolyGram-Mercury in Europe. PolyGram-Mercury ran with the Abracadabra single, which had a European flavor, and they backed it with an aggressive promotional campaign, making Abracadabra a worldwide hit. After that, the U.S. picked up Abracadabra and it became a U.S. number one hit two times in a row, of which Capitol Records, of course, took credit for [sarcastic laugh], for doing absolutely nothing!
Wow, I think I heard of that "payola" thing and it's illegal? It sounds like Miller is a decent guy and that record company were [bleeps] at the time.
Lewis: Yeah, and Miller is an honest guy, who never had to use this type of shady business practice in the past for any of his other hits.
Well, I'm glad you guys won in the end. So, what you are up to now?
Lewis: [teasingly with a tad of sincerity] You know, the next time you do an interview, you should think about using a tape recorder.
Cute. Well, this is only my second interview. And need I remind you about your score keeping performance at the last softball game [chuckle]. (It should be noted that this was the game where Lewis’ daughter slid into home base to break a tie game, propelling our team to a well-deserved victory.)
Lewis: [grin, laugh] Besides touring with the Steve Miller Band, I am also the lead singer of several other bands including The Hang Dynasty — a "who's who" of famous rock star sidemen, who do corporate events nationwide. Also, The Barflyz, a smaller jazz flavored group, which will be performing at the Hearst Castle in April and local wineries throughout the summer.