Our subject today: Pete "Guitar" Lewis, is another man of mystery. A brilliant guitar player whose style could be primitive and aggressive or subtle and jazzy, he sounded like himself and no one else. His sound is immediately recognizable, his touch was immaculate, and today, nobody except his one time boss Johnny Otis even remembers that he even existed.
Lewis was discovered by Johnny Otis at amateur night at the Club Alabam which Otis was the co-owner of, and was soon added to the Johnny Otis Show, appearing on all their recordings from 1951-55. Virtually all of his recordings (except his last) where done under Johnny Otis' tutelage, and when he left Otis' group in 1955 he returned to obscurity. We know he was born somewhere in the South, and that he died in L.A. in the early 70's, where and when he was born are unknown at this time. With Otis he made his mark in a big way, appearing on all his Regent/Savoy recordings, his guitar is featured most prominently on Harlem Nocturne, Boogie Guitar, and Hangover Blues, as well as sides for Peacock (Shake It being the best), and Mercury (more on those later). Working for Otis, who was then doing A&R and producing for Don Robey's Peacock label, he backed up Johnny Ace and Big Mama Thorton-- whose first session produced Hound Dog, Walking Blues, Nightmare and Hard Times, tunes which all feature Lewis' guitar front and center. Lieber and Stoller remember the original arrangment of Hound Dog being written around a riff that Lewis developed in the studio. He was recorded as a leader for Federal, eight titles recorded over two sessions in 1952 resulted in these four singles: Louisiana Hop b/w Crying With The Rising Sun, Raggedy Blues b/w Harmonica Boogie, The Blast b/w Chocolate Porkchop Man and Ooh, It's Midnight b/w Scratchin'. Peacock recorded him a year later and issued one single-- Goin' Crazy b/w Back Door Troubles (this one is so rare I've been looking for it for twenty years and still haven't seen a copy).
Perhaps the highlight of his career came when the Johnny Otis Show recorded a session for Mercury with the great tenor man Ben Webster, the Duke Ellington alumni
responsible for countless great jazz sides. The four song session includes two tunes where Pete Lewis trades off riffs with Webster-- One Nighter Blues and Goomp Blues,
stunning performances (the other tunes cut that day in '51-- three takes of Stardust,
Basie's One O'Clock Jump and a goofy novelty tunes called Oopy Doo don't have guitar solos). One might imagine that this session was a chance for Lewis to really prove himself as a musician, one able to hold his ground with the best of 'em, and Ben Webster was certainly the best of 'em. Listen to their exchange on One Nighter Blues-- Webster's warm fog of a tone sounds so good pitted against Lewis' jagged, distorted blues riffing. It's a shame they didn't record more together, or that this trend didn't catch on. Had this record been a hit, Lord knows what sax-guitar duets we might have seen-- Lester Young and Guitar Slim? Charlie Parker and Gatemouth Brown? The mind boggles. But it was not to be, it was an experiment whose time had not yet come, and we wouldn't hear anything remotely like it until Miles Davis' A Tribute To Jack Johnson eighteen years later (fans of peculiar jazz/rock fusion and/or guitar-sax duels might want to check out Albert Ayler's Drudgery where he jams out the blues with Henry Vestine of the Gamblers (Moondawg/LSD-25) and Canned Heat fame, a most perverse piece of trash which I love) .
Otis also recorded him for his own Dig label with Get Away From Here, a track that was un-issued until the 90's. He appears on other Johnny Otis Dig recordings like Midnight Creeper, Ali Baba's Boogie, and Groove Juice and Country Boogie, released under Preston Love's name. In late 1955 he left Johnny Otis after an argument (his replacement was Jimmy Nolen who was later replaced by Otis' son Shuggie Otis), Lewis recorded only one more time, backing up Willie Egan on the Vita label, he can be heard on the rocker Come On. From there, who knows? Johnny Otis said the last time he saw Pete Lewis was during the Watts riots in the summer of '66, he was a wino on the street. He hadn't worked in music in years. There ya go, another great one, lost to time, except for the incredible recordings he made. Pete "Guitar" Lewis was a monster.
ADDENDUM TO TODAY'S POST: Barry Soltz checked in to remind me of a great Pete Lewis solo that I forgot about--- Little Esther with the Dominoes on Federal-- The Deacon's Movin' In, and also that Ben Webster and Pete Lewis play together on Little Esther's Better Beware (also on Federal, I didn't realize that was Ben Webster)--- thanks Barry.