News Column

Kenny Lee Lewis is an artist and a crowd pleaser

May 22, 2013

YellowBrix

May 22--With his flowing hair, full beard and wraparound shades, Kenny Lee Lewis doesn't try very hard to hide his rock 'n' roll roots.

"I'm not a rock star," he says. "I just work for a rock star."

Lewis is being more than a little modest. A member of the Steve Miller Band for more than three decades, he went from Los Angeles studio musician to lead guitarist of one of the world's most popular classic rock bands in the early 1980s.

On Sunday, the Steve Miller Band will perform alongside two respected blues acts, the Elvin Bishop Band and Carolyn Wonderland, at the 20th annual Avila Beach Blues Festival.

According to Lewis, the Steve Miller Band's set list will include "all the hits" -- including "Abracadrabra," "The Joker," "Rock'n Me" and "Fly Like an Eagle" -- plus blues and rhythm-and-blues songs from their most recent albums, 2010's "Bingo!" and 2011's "Let Your Hair Down."

"We please the crowd so they get their money's worth, and yet we still have an artistic statement that allows us to have some freedom," said Lewis, who lives in San Luis Obispo with his wife, singer-songwriter Dianne Steinberg-Lewis. "It's a difficult balance to find."

Self-taught guitarist

Born in Pasadena, Lewis spent his formative years in Sacramento, where he moved with his family in 1960. The fledging musician taught himself to play ukulele at age 7.

"That's all I could get my hand around," Lewis, 58, recalled.

In the sixth grade, around 1965, he picked up his brother's $40 Sears Silvertone nylon-string guitar -- it still sits in his bedroom -- and started learning Peter, Paul and Mary songs.

The following summer, he borrowed an electric guitar and amplifier and spent months practicing in his next-door neighbor's bomb shelter.

"We were able to blow our brains out 24/7 and no one even heard us because we were underground," he said.

Then Lewis heard The Jimi Hendrix Experience's 1967 album "Are You Experienced."

"I was done for," he said. "That album more than anything freaked me out, because I'd never heard a guitar sound like that. ... This was something new."

Fortunately, Lewis said, his parents were "very supportive" of his musical goals.

"They didn't encourage me or go out and buy me the best gear or try to get me enrolled in music schools," he said. "They just let me practice and let my friends practice in my back bedroom. That was very nice of them."

At age 17, Lewis went on the road with a rock cover band called Sand Castle. He attended Cal State Northridge for a single semester -- leaving partially because he couldn't get into the highly competitive jazz band there -- before moving to Los Angeles on New Year's Day 1973, with dreams of becoming a studio musician.

"I knew I had a gift with fretted instruments," Lewis said.

Ultimately, it was raw talent -- rather than his ability to read music or understand musical theory -- that got him hired.

"You had to have a natural ability that (made you) stand out from your average educated musician," he explained. "Mostly they give a chart to you and they go, 'Well, don't do what I wrote. Just play what you feel.' "

Eventually, Lewis met drummer Gary Mallaber and started a band. They were pursuing a record deal in 1981 when Steve Miller called Mallaber seeking songs for his new album.

"We had eight songs that we had just mixed and mastered in Gary's garage," Lewis recalled, using the same reel-to-reel eight-track recorder The Eurythmics used for their early hits. "Gary came in after the phone call and asked me and our songwriting partner, (guitarist) John (Massaro), if we wanted to send him our demos ... and he ended taking all eight of them."

Those tracks became the basis of the Steve Miller Band's platinum- selling 1982 album, "Abracadabra."

"We were giving Steve this new sound, which was this more '80s, current kind of approach to pop music," Lewis said. "He was always blues-oriented. We (made) him a little New Wave ... a little more sophisticated."

Lewis points to the album's title track as proof of their success. "Abracadabra" reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and topped charts worldwide.

"It was huge in Russia when the Wall was still up," he said, noting that one distributor was caught trading "Abracadabra" records and blue jeans for vodka on the black market.

Miller brought Lewis and his bandmates into the Steve Miller Band, installing Lewis as lead guitar player. He switched to his preferred instrument, bass, in 2011 after blues guitarist Jacob Peterson joined the group.

"I'm the senior member now," Lewis said.

The band has lost several members in recent years, from longtime harmonica player Norton Buffalo, who died in 2009, to founding bass player Lonnie Turner, who passed away April 29.

"It's part of an iconic era that's dying out. We're losing a lot of the classic rockers every other week now," Lewis said. "Steve's turning 70 this year. ... He's still singing his songs in the original keys and playing his guitar and coming to the party. He still gives the people a good show."

One reason is Miller's catalog of classic hits.

"His catalog is just indestructible. It will be around after he goes," Lewis said, comparing Miller to rock legends John Fogerty and John Mellencamp. "It's a testament to the man and his art."

Because Steve Miller Band songs are so well known, Lewis said the group tries to perform them much in the manner they were recorded.

"If The Beach Boys go out, they have to do the same thing," he said. "They've got to do their hits and they have to do them the way people remember, otherwise people get confused and they get angry and they start throwing things."

Locally active

In between Steve Miller Band shows, Lewis performs locally with Cuesta College's Monday Night Band and Barflyz, a blues quintet that includes Dean Giles, Ken Hustad, Danny Pelfrey and Dianne Steinberg-Lewis. (The daughter of influential radio broadcaster Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, she appeared as Lucy in the 1978 movie "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.") He also plays with Hang Dynasty, a classic rock band based in the Midwest.

In addition, Lewis has been producing local acts, including band Days Alone, indie rocker Matthias Clark and New Age singer-songwriter Jay Horn.

"It's hard to go to Nashville and peddle your songs with all those writers down there and expect to get a cover and expect to send your kids to college with that kind of money. You can't do it anymore," said Lewis, who released a solo jazz album, "New Vintage," in 2009. He's also released a blues album via Megatrax, which connects composers with movie and television producers seeking soundtrack fodder.

"The good news is, because of the Internet, you can peddle (your music) to anybody in the world and there's probably an audience for your stuff," he added. "It's actually a better business now for smaller artists."

IF YOU GO

Avila Beach Blues Festival

2 p.m. Sunday, gates open at noon

Avila Beach Golf Resort, 6464 Ana Bay Drive, Avila Beach

$55 to $95

924-1142 or www.otterproductionsinc.com

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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(c)2013 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)

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