Born Robert A. Lewis, 17 February 1925, Indianapolis, Indiana
"Tossin' and Turnin'" by Bobby Lewis was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s, with a 7-week run at the top of the Billboard charts. Only two records, "Theme From A Summer Place" by Percy Faith (1960) and "Hey Jude" by the Beatles (1968) spent more weeks in the top spot during that decade (both nine weeks).
Raised in an Indianapolis orphanage, Bobby Lewis learned to play the piano by age six. He was adopted at the age of twelve and went to live with his new family in Detroit. There he grew up with the influences of the pioneer blues musicians. He worked in various odd jobs before he decided to try for a career in music, finding employment as a singer with the Leo Hines orchestra in Indianapolis. Many sources (including Joel Whitburn and Fred Bronson) claim that Lewis first recorded for the Parrot label in 1952, but that label didn't even exist then. In reality he cut his first record for Chess in August 1952. Titled "Mumbles Blues", it was co-written by Lewis and Leroy Kirkland, who supplied the arrangement and the accompaniment. Though it wasn't a hit, the song became popular again around late 1955 / early 1956 when versions by Big Connie (Groove), Rudy Green (Excello) and Boyd Bennett (King) appeared in quick succession. Not to be outdone on his own song, Lewis re-recorded "Mumbles Blues" in an almost identical arrangement to his Chess recording for the tiny Spotlight label in 1956. This version was picked up and reissued by the Mercury label in December 1957, despite the fact that Mercury already had a fine version in their vaults by Paul Bascomb from 1952. Apparently sales were good, because Mercury issued a second Bobby Lewis single in April 1958, the David Clowney composition "Yay, Yay, I Feel So Gay" (!). The next stop was Roulette, for whom Bobby cut four songs. Two of them were released on a 1959 single ; the other two would come out after Lewis had hit the big time.
In Detroit Lewis had become friendly with Jackie Wilson and his manager, Nat Tarnopol. They advised Bobby to try his luck in New York City, which he did, but he was turned down by several record companies. In late 1960, while appearing at the Apollo Theater in New York, Lewis stopped at the offices of Beltone Records and asked for an audition. After playing some of his own songs, Bobby was offered a song written by Ritchie Adams, the former lead singer of the Fireflies, who had just signed a solo contract with Beltone. The song was "Tossin' and Turnin'", cut on February 1, 1961, under the supervision of Joe Rene, who is listed as co-writer. The song had an unusual instrumental break, played by King Curtis on the mouth piece of his sax. It took some time before the record took off, but it reached the number one position on July 10, 1961 and stayed there until it was replaced by "Wooden Heart" by Joe Dowell on August 28. On the R&B charts it was # 1 for ten weeks. With total sales exceeding three million, it was the biggest hit of 1961. The follow-up single, "One Track Mind", was also successful, peaking at # 9 pop and # 8 R&B. Beltone also issued an album by Lewis, the only LP in its history. But it failed to enter the album charts. Subsequent Beltone 45s were less successful, with only "What A Walk" (# 77, late 1961) and "I'm Tossin' and Turnin' Again" (# 98, July 1962) scraping the charts.
Beltone went out of business in 1963 and Lewis moved to ABC-Paramount, who released two singles in 1964 with no success. It is doubtful if Lewis recorded after 1964 ; "Soul Seekin'" on Philips (1968) might be by the same Bobby Lewis. But all other recordings under that name were by country singer Bobby Lewis (born 1942), who had eleven Top 40 country hits between 1966 and 1979. Still, once you've scored a hit as big as "Tossin' and Turnin'", you can continue in the music business for a very long time and Lewis was still performing on the oldies circuit in the 1990s. Reportedly, his stage performance was quite dynamic. His hit was included in two movies, "American Graffiti" (1973) and "Animal House" (1978).
Since 1980 Lewis has been living in Newark, New Jersey. Now approaching his 90th birthday, he is almost blind (see interview) and biding his time. Somewhat unfairly, he is remembered as a one-hit wonder.
This week there was a Facebook rumour that Lewis is dead. On July 9, the singer's reps officially confirmed that Bobby Lewis is alive and well. http://en.mediamass.net/people/bobby-lewis/deathhoax.html (His year of birth is incorrectly given there as 1933.)
Interview (from 2011) :
CD : Tossin' and Turnin' (Collectables, 2005). 18 Beltone tracks. Previously released on a Relic CD.
Acknowledgements : Tapio Väisänen, Dave Penny, Eric LeBlanc, Fred Bronson.
Dik, July 2014
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