Veteran keyboardist Lewis Stephens talks about Freddie King, Delbert McClinton, Texas scene and vinyl records

"I miss the experience of hanging out with the Blues Greats that have passed on. I have great hope for the future of Blues and Americana. I know a lot of young people that are carrying on the tradition of music first."

Lewis Stephens: Backbone Keys

Keyboardist Lewis Stephens has played the blues with Freddie King, Texas roadhouse with Delbert McClinton, bluegrass with Vassar Clements, and country with Bobby Bare, but he owes his career to Van Cliburn and a dedicated mother. Stephens began piano lessons at age five, one of countless Texas kids enrolled in piano lessons by their moms after Van Cliburn’s victory in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. He would spend the next 10 years training with the best classical piano teachers in his hometown of Fort Worth. Lewis played with Freddie King from 1973-1976 and then with Delbert McClinton for two years.  In the late 70’s he moved to Nashville where he played and recorded with Vassar Clements and Bobby Bare. He also spent time touring with Tracy Nelson and Marshall Chapman during a three year stay in music city before returning to Texas.

In the mid-90s, an invitation to attend one of Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruises revived his music career. Stephens has since performed and/or recorded with Stephen Bruton, Billy White Jr., Seth James, Andrew “Jr. Boy” Jones, Wanda King (Freddie's daughter), Marc Benno, Rob Roy Parnell, Anson Funderburgh, Danny Brooks, Mike Schermer, Gary Nicholson/Whitey Johnson, Mingo Fishtrap, Teresa James, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Rob Roy Parnell, Dave Millsap, and more recently Danny Brooks, The Texas Blues Runners, The Rhythmators and Mike Zito & The Wheel. His fondest memories are of playing with friends who have passed on, including Stephen Bruton, Doyle Bramhall Sr. and Bugs Henderson, all fellow Texans who have “left an indelible mark on American music,” says Stephens. Lewis Stephens has been, as Delbert once said, “the back bone” of many bands and recording sessions. He has always tried to honor the song and the musical genre in both his live performances and recording work. Stephens remains a grateful, hardworking family man, always professional and prepared, whether stepping on stage or into the recording studio. He plans to keep playing as long as he lives and to enjoy every minute of it.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Lewis Stephens sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

I believe that as a musician, your job is to enhance the artist and song. Not detract or overpower it. I have played several genres of music with some of the best in business and try to use that experience to play just what is needed, both in live performance and in the studio.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the experience of hanging out with the Blues Greats that have passed on. I have great hope for the future of Blues and Americana. I know a lot of young people that are carrying on the tradition of music first.

"I would go back to the magic of only having Vinyl Records. The electronic transfer of music is a great tool for the professional." (Photo: Lewis Stephens with John Belushi and friends)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

You can learn from just about anyone if you pay attention. I look at my experience as whole in shaping me as a musician and person. I am still learning and evolving.

Which is the moment that you change your life most? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I think joining Freddie King’s band was the opportunity that set me on the path I still walk. I met a lot of great artists with Freddie and playing with him still opens a lot of doors.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the late Freddie King?

Freddie had a great sense of humor and loved to laugh and tease. I think his trust of me musically and personally touched me and gave me the confidence to tackle anything that life has thrown at me since.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Freddie opening for Clapton was a big moment. The first night of the tour Clapton called Freddie and I up to play on his encore. I grew up playing Sunshine of Your Love on the guitar so this was a big moment.

Recording Second Wind with Delbert McClinton was another milestone for me. I was the only outsider tracking with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section at Capricorn Studios with Johnny Sandlin producing.

"All music is a continuum of what has come before. Both pure blues and country come from a very real place of passion and trouble.  It is raw emotion set to music. Classical was the Americana of its day." (Photo: Lewis Stephens & Delbert McClinton)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would go back to the magic of only having Vinyl Records. The electronic transfer of music is a great tool for the professional. It allows me to play on records all over the world from the comfort of my home but in the hands of the record company CEO and the file sharing/downloading service CEO it has killed the ability of the artist to make decent royalties from his creative work. It has also taken the mystique out of recorded music to the listener and music buyer.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Playing with Freddie showed me another side of life. For a good bit of the time I was the only white person in the band and I learned a lot about what my band mates lived through. Traveling through the south in the seventies showed me some examples of real racism and reinforced my believe in equality for all.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Country and continue to Rock …and Tchaikovsky music?

All music is a continuum of what has come before. Both pure blues and country come from a very real place of passion and trouble. It is raw emotion set to music. Classical was the Americana of its day.

"Playing with Freddie showed me another side of life. For a good bit of the time I was the only white person in the band and I learned a lot about what my band mates lived through. Traveling through the south in the seventies showed me some examples of real racism and reinforced my believe in equality for all." (Photo: Lewis Stephens & Freddie King)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I’d like to get back on Freddie King’s bus at the age of eighteen and ride out into the night in a time before cell phones and downloads and YouTube. But just for a week or two. I like my electronics.

Why Texas Blues continues to generate such a devoted following? Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

There were so many great blues players in Texas during the seventies.  There was tremendous competition but also a sense of brother/sisterhood. You could play 5-7 nights a week and make a decent living. Everything was wide open and the world was a safer place for experimentation and rebellion.  

It was a more innocent time if you will. That was a great environment for creativity and self realization. People came up through the garage band and bar scene. There was no American Idol or The Voice to tell us what good music was. Talent and creativity ruled and you had to pay your dues and make your own way.

 

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