Veteran drummer Billy Lee Lewis talks about the experiences on the road with the Blues and his friends

"Everyone has had The Blues - be they the sad, downhearted Blues, or the happy, uplifted Blues - all of us, around the world can relate to it."

Billy Lee Lewis: Serve the Song, Keep the Groove

Billy Lee Lewis is a veteran west coast drummer/percussionist. He’s in the music circuits from 1968 and worked with Tommy Castro, Roy Rogers, Jemimah Puddleduck, Jessie Turner, Ray Manzarek, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dr. John, Marty Balin, Wulfe Bros, Crazy Arms and many more.  Billy at an autobiographical text said: It's been well over a year since he left the fold of the Tommy Castro Band, and to quote Kurt Vonnegut, "It's a full life and a merry one." He has been remiss in updating the events and changes in his life and career, and in the hope that a few of you retain interest, he'll fill you in.

Going directly from five-plus years of near-constant touring, to waking up in the same bed every morning was not unlike the decompressing stages divers experiences on their way up from the depths (which is not to imply that the Castro gig was the depths - far from it - but perhaps a less insinuating metaphor is called for here). eaving the Castro Band without an alternative plan for my professional life made my first few months at home a strange combination of relaxation and terror. Work was scarce, faith frequently wavered, but we held the course and everything eventually fell happily into place. He left the band and the road to devote him to family life. Almost a year to the day from his last Castro gig, his son, Will, was born. After a few months back at home, work began trickling in, and soon reached a satisfactory level. For several months, his primary gig has been with the slide player, Roy Rogers. He has been fortunate in securing a fair amount of studio work, both producing and playing for a number of Bay Area artists, and do several live dates each month with some of his favorite players. Carrying through on my threat to teach drums to innocents, Billy given a few lessons in a sort of "house-call" fashion, and, schedule permitting, would consider adding a few more "students" to his roster.

He still has a regular column, "The Road Worrier" in DRUM! magazine, which aims to enlighten young musicians in the "drill" of life on the road, and how to live through it. As always, while out there on the road, or in the Bay Area, he look forward to the pleasure of reuniting with old friends, as well as making new ones.

Interview by Michael Limnios        All Photos © by Bob Hakins

How do you describe Billy Lee Lewis sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

People have often told me they recognized my playing on a track they heard, and while I'm very complimented by that (unless they thought, "Man, these drums sound so bad, it must be BLL playing!"), I never really know what they mean. What I strive for is a smooth groove, with a bit of a lope to it. My physical style of playing is referred to as "The Floppy Man", because I try to play as loose-limbed as possible. I think that is a big part of where my sound comes from.

As to my progress, I keep trying to perfect my groove. I don't have a lot of flashy chops - I'm not much of a soloist - I'm happiest supporting the band.

My music philosophy? "Serve the Song" Play what's best for the song, not what will make the drum geeks go, "WOW, did you hear that fill?"

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I've had too many interesting moments to name one. My most creative period, however, was when I worked with Renée Harcourt and BZ Lewis, in a recording project called "Sugar Danks". We wrote, performed (often on home-made, or improvised instruments), and produced all our own stuff. (BZ, who in addition to being a great guitarist is a world-class recording engineer.) Everyone's ideas were tried; our motto was "It's Wide Open, Baby".

"I've met an awful lot of people over the last 40 years; too many to list. However, for me, the top of the list has to be BB King."                                                              Photo © by Bob Hakins

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

There's a genuineness and sincerity in The Blues - I mean the real Blues, not the guitar-shredding, more-show-than-heart "bogus Blues" - that can't be found anywhere else. I think people appreciate that. It doesn't take a music degree to understand it; you only have to have lived your life. Everyone has had The Blues - be they the sad, downhearted Blues, or the happy, uplifted Blues - all of us, around the world can relate to it. The Blues doesn't need smoke machines, amp stacks, or pyrotechnics. Just one singer and someone to hear their song.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I don't know if these counts, because it wasn't The Blues, but, a couple of years ago, I did some touring with a "jam band" called, "Jemimah Puddleduck". Every night, the set list was almost completely different, and every song, while starting out the same way, would morph into whatever and wherever the individual players would take it. These guys come from a sort of “School of the Grateful Dead” - not that they noodle around in a seemingly aimless fashion (no offense meant, Dead Heads). Now, that's not a style of music I really care much for, as a rule, but these players were some of the best I've ever had the pleasure of working with. I grew as a musician and drummer while with those guys.

Three of my most memorable gigs, just off the top of my head would be:

1) Banging out the drum intro to "Be My Baby" (The Ronettes), while backing up Ronee Spector, the original lead singer.

2) The two summers we spent touring with BB King's multi-act show, while I was with Tommy Castro really stand out. Seeing BB, Buddy Guy, John Hiatt, and Susan Tedeschi and their bands every night was quite a schooling.

3) Playing "Green Onions" with Booker T. has to be way up there as well.

"It all came from The Blues. Soul, Country, Jazz, Rock and Roll, are all American styles of music, and all have their roots in the blues. Country music is known as 'The White Man's Blues'."

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

I've met an awful lot of people over the last 40 years; too many to list. However, for me, the top of the list has to be BB King. We (The Castro Band) sat with him in the stateroom on his bus, and listened to how he first became interested in music. I have such enormous respect and admiration for that man, and to have been privy to the real BB King "biography in a nutshell" was a moment in time I treasure.

Some of the best advice I've received was given to me by Austrian keyboardist/producer Peter Wolf, who once played in Frank Zappa's band. He told me, "Never play a fill that doesn't come from your heart."

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

I once did a record (that shows you how old I am!) with Nicky Hopkins, the pianist who played with The Stones, and just about every other big British (and many American) groups. While alone in the studio (I was in the control room with the engineer), Nicky pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. He then proceeded to find the exact note he had blown on his grand piano. He had no idea we were listening, and it was hilarious. The he launched into a bit of classical improvisation that was so stunning and moving that we sat with our jaws hanging open. We were so caught by surprise and entranced by the beauty of his playing that the engineer, sadly, didn't hit "record". I would love to have a recording of that entire episode. From the ridiculous to the sublime, in a matter of minutes.

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

It saddens me that so many young African/Americans want nothing to do with the blues. It's considered "slave music" by many, and held in low regard. The Blues has become largely the province of the white man in the last 30 years. I believe there to be significantly more white performers than black. I think it's a shame; it's a beautiful, urgent, honest art form, and I hope the young African /American community will one day take pride in the gift they gave to the world.

Which memories from Ray Manzarek, Tommy Castro, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Roy Rogers makes you smile?

I was just getting to know Ray Manzarek when he passed. I can tell you, quite honestly, that I very much admired him. I was never a fan of The Doors, but I was a fan of Ray, the man. He made me hope that I could grow older the way he did. He was in his early seventies and in extraordinarily good shape. He was interesting and still interested in life and the world. He spoke often and always fondly of his wife (who he'd been with since their days at UCLA!), and clearly still loved her very much. I was stunned when I learned of his passing, but I feel privileged to have spent time with him.

Castro? all I have to do is think of him and I smile. Towards the end of my time in the band, we were butting heads an awful lot. I think I quit about 5 minutes before he fired me! However, we're very good friends now that the boss/employee thing is removed. Now we're just two guys with wives and kids and we have a very strong bond between us that was forged during my 5 years on the road with his band. That was one of the most important periods in my life, and I'll always be grateful to him. He was, and still is, a great guy and a stand-up boss.

Ramblin' Jack, I have to say I don't really know too well. He'd show up at Roy Rogers gigs from time to time; sometimes he'd sit in and do a duet with Roy, but I don't remember if we all ever backed him up. He paid me an enormous compliment on my drumming one night, though. He gave me one of those moments when I felt like maybe I was doing it right. He's an unfailing gentleman, and I really dig that in a guy. And boy, that fella had some great stories. Now there's a guy who's been around.

Playing with Roy for many years afforded me a great many memories. There was the crazy woman club owner who was so enraged that we only did two shows (as our contract stated), that she went to Roy's room an hour later (we were staying on-site) and drunkenly beat on his door, demanding we go back up and play until 2:00AM. He finally answered the door in his boxers and told her to… well, you know. We had to leave Ralph, Roy's guitar tech up on the stage for several hours so the crazy-drunk crowd wouldn't start trying to play our instruments. Then there are the beautiful memories, like playing a magical set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, or playing before thousands of screaming Brazilians. And there are the memories of laughter and teasing each other while driving down some highway.

Billy Lee Lewis with Roy Rogers & Ramblin' Jack Elliott at the Napa Opera House © by Bob Hakins

Are there any memories from Marty Balin, Dr. John, and Bob Weir which you’d like to share with us?

Marty was my first “Big Time” gig. I was 29, and it was my first opportunity to live like I thought a “rock star” should live - foolishly, recklessly, and decadently. I’d wanted to be a rock star since I was a little boy, and when I finally got a taste of it, I’m sorry to say, I put the lifestyle above the music. We had a Top 10 hit record (#6 in Billboard).We all thought we were Keith Richards (without a fraction of his talent), and we essentially spent two years in a non-stop party. I should interject that Marty didn’t indulge in our foolishness. He’d been a rock star for almost 20 years; he’d been there and back. He did yoga, did not drink, and read and wrote songs. The sort of stuff a real musician does. I have a million great memories of that time (of which I could probably only tell my mom two!). We did a tour of Japan, where we were recognized on the street, heard our music played in the clubs, and performed to packed, enthusiastic audiences. That was like a dream. Oh, I also got hit by a cab after our first show. I was very drunk on sake, ran (jaywalked) across a very busy street to chat up a beautiful woman I’d exchanged glances with, forgot the traffic runs the opposite way from America, and BAM! If I had gotten twelve inches farther, I would have gone completely under a cab traveling at about 30 MPH. As it was, he got me with his headlight, and up in the air I went. I was badly bruised, but nothing broke. I soaked in the tub for 24 hours (fortunately, we had the next day off), took a bunch of pain pills, and finished the tour. But that’s the sort of behavior I was talking about earlier. My irresponsibility took us mere inches from having to cancel the entire tour, and forcing the entire entourage to return home, unpaid and out of work. I don’t drink any more.

When I was with Castro, our label hired Dr. John to play on two tracks on our “Right As Rain” CD. He came in after the tracks were cut and overdubbed his (typically brilliant) piano parts. He may have played some B3 as well, but Jimmy Pugh usually did that for us. I never saw Mac (Dr. John) until he showed up at our record release party at The Great American Music Hall, in SF. I introduced myself and thanked him for playing on our record He said (in his quiet, scratchy, baritone voice), “Yeah, man, that’s some good shit” That lit me up like a Christmas tree!

Bob Weir? I only met him once, at my gig at The Sweetwater, in Mill Valley, Ca. We jammed on the Johnny Otis song, “Willy and the Hand Jive”. This time, it was his turn to be drunk. Very drunk.

"Some of the best advice I've received was given to me by Austrian keyboardist/producer Peter Wolf, who once played in Frank Zappa's band. He told me, 'Never play a fill that doesn't come from your heart'." 

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

You know, mostly, it’s not so much what I learn, as what is confirmed: I love African/American, and even African music. However, I’m not a hip hop fan. To my ear (and I speak only for myself), there’s more production than soul. Usually, no live drums, and very little (good) singing. There’s not enough real “music” in it for me. However, millions of people don’t share my sentiments. That’s cool - there should be plenty of room for everybody.

What does it mean to me? Real life. Sincerity. Blues singers wrote about what they knew; the joy and the pain in those songs is genuine.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

Many things have made me laugh recently. There is a preponderance of funny musicians, and that’s with who I spend most of my time. I’ll tell you you who makes me laugh all the time, though - my wife, singer/songwriter, Jessie Turner. I know this is a terribly sexist thing to say, and I hope your readers will forgive me, but she’s funny like a guy. Our nine-year old son, William, is also an exceptionally funny little guy. There’s a lot of laughter and good-natured teasing in our house. As to what has touched me recently? Aside from the frequently expressed love and devotion of Jessie and William, there was a little boy I met for the first time last Monday. He’s about 7, and has been taking drum lessons for about six months. His mom was unhappy with his teacher and asked if I’d take him on. Monday was our first meeting and lesson, and I could tell he was nervous. To make matters worse, he’d misplaced his backpack, with his sticks and notebook. I’m sure he was afraid I’d be mad at him. Anyway, we talked a bit, got comfortable, and had our first lesson. When we left, he asked if I’d like him to make me a “Rainbow Rubber Band Bracelet” I was very moved by that. And even more so when his mom informed me that he’d only ever made them for his parents.

"What does it mean to me? Real life. Sincerity. Blues singers wrote about what they knew; the joy and the pain in those songs is genuine." (Photo: Billy and Roy Rogers © by Bob Hakins)

What are the lines that connect the beats and rhythms of Blues with Soul, Country and continue to Jazz and Rock?

It all came from The Blues. Soul, Country, Jazz, Rock and Roll, are all American styles of music, and all have their roots in the blues. Country music is known as "The White Man's Blues". It also was born in the southern US, and was the child of (mostly) poor white folks.

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

Well, I’m a bit embarrassed to say it, but I think Manhattan, during the “Roaring Twenties”. Even though I’m completely clean and sober, I’ve always been intrigued by the wildly decadent, “anything goes”, zeitgeist of the era. I dig the clothes, too.

Which things do you prefer to do in your spare time?

I do a great deal of reading, and I watch way too many movies. I also enjoy walking. I’ve trained myself to read while I walk.

Happiness is……

Being under a blanket on the couch, snuggling with Jessie and William, and watching an exciting movie. My, how times have changed.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Photos © by Bob Hakins / All rights reserved.

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