Willie Lewis Was Colorado's Wild, Brilliant King of Rockabilly
Lewis with his wife, Mary Louise.
Gary Isaacs for Westword.
William Lewis Klug, who went by Willie Lewis, was best known as the founder of Rock-a-Billy Record Co., a Denver-based label that has released nearly forty 45 rpm rockabilly singles since 1982. But Lewis was also a fanatic, a gifted record collector and one of Colorado's best rockabilly singers. He was 68 years old when he died last month during heart-ablation surgery, thirty years after his first heart attack."The guy just always thought he was going to die sometime soon," says Tom Lundin, who was Lewis's friend for two decades and became his chief archivist and webmaster. "It's amazing that he lived to be 68. He's been slated to die so many times."
Lewis's first brush with death came on the heels of his birth: He was born in 1946 with erythroblastosis fetalis, a disease that had killed his brother five years earlier. There was no cure at the time, but a German doctor had been experimenting with a procedure involving a complete blood transfer. They used it on Lewis, draining his blood through the femoral artery in his leg and replacing it with fresh blood through the carotid artery in his neck.
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Willie Lewis at nine years old.
Courtesy of Tom Lundin
"Life has been one test of survival after another," Lewis wrote in an unpublished autobiography, which local KIMN and KYGO radio legend Steve Keeney convinced him to write about a year and a half ago.
Lewis grew up in an orphanage and dropped out of North High School halfway through his sophomore year. He was always into music, especially Elvis Presley and R&B, and started collecting records as a teenager. When he stole a car shortly after dropping out of school, he was given the choice between jail and the Navy, so he enlisted and moved to San Diego. Those were wild years. Later in life, he'd tell the stories to friends: about the time he went AWOL; about the time he and a buddy broke out of a tiny jail in Fallon City, Nevada, with the help of a couple of preachers' daughters; and the time he got busted going 100 miles per hour down 16th Street in Denver at 3 a.m. in another stolen car.
The latter earned him two years at the Colorado State Reformatory in Buena Vista. He got out in 1966, a few months before his twentieth birthday. In his autobiography, he says he spent his days doing very little, hunting crawdads with baseball bats at Cherry Creek Reservoir. "I drank like a pig and hung out with people [whose] sole purpose in life seemed to be to commit crimes," Lewis wrote. "I knew that if I didn't do something to change it, I would be back in prison sooner or later."
So he got his GED and started studying to be a nurse at Denver's Youth Opportunity Center. There he met a receptionist and avid record collector named Mary Louise Sanchez. They got married, and Lewis put his energy back into his old childhood hobby, choosing 45s over full-length albums. He had a knack for finding obscure records and hidden gems. Lundin recalls a time when Lewis got the urge to hit up a thrift store that he used to go to, where he found three mint-condition Elvis Presley Sun Records 45s for a quarter each.
Keeney met Lewis in 1973, while scrutinizing a tray of old singles at a secondhand store. He says that although Lewis initially struck him as a little odd, he quickly gained a reverence for the man's musical gifts. "He could wake up in the middle of night and know there was some very hard-to-find vinyl that someone had just put into some Goodwill shop on the other side of town, or even out of town," says Keeney.
They struck up a friendship that lasted the rest of Lewis's life. "Then, and until the day he died, he was very intense, very opinionated," Keeney says. "He would say something like this: 'That song by Jess Hooper from back in '56 -- that is the best rockabilly song that was ever made.' You didn't argue with him, even though it was opinion, because his opinions were facts."
Courtesy of Tom Lundin.
He started looking for records outside Colorado, eventually amassing tens of thousands of R&B, blues, country and, in particular, rockabilly records. His collection became world-renowned, especially once it started to include his own creations.
In late 1978, at the age of 32, Lewis bought a guitar for two dollars at the Salvation Army and, with a little help from his wife's nephew, spent about a year learning three chords. The task wasn't made easier by the fact that he was playing a guitar set up for a right-handed person. Lewis, who was born a southpaw, restrung his guitar and started writing his own songs.
"All I wanted was one record that I could put in with all my other records and it would fit in," Lewis wrote. "In other words, if you played ten original rockabilly records and stuck mine in at number seven, you would think that it was done in the same era as the other nine were, based on sound and style."
He formed a band mostly featuring his family, originally called the Unknowns but later known as Willie & the String Poppers. They practiced his originals -- "The Rockin' Blues" and "Whatever Happened to That Rock & Roll?" -- many times before recording them.
In spite of his late start as a musician and the hiccups along the way, Lewis proved a natural talent. "I considered Lewis to be the greatest of the modern-day roots-rockabilly singers," says Keeney. "His stuff is very raw, very pure, and I got the immediate sense that it was from the heart. It's the kind of music that's very hard to fake."
When Lewis recorded, he tried to re-create the atmosphere of the '50s rockabilly he so admired. He would set up one microphone in his kitchen, and he'd move musicians around to get the mix right. Jonny Barber, who played in one of Lewis's later bands, recalls him adjusting the mix by moving an amp or commanding the bass player to back away from the microphone.
"Rockabilly is really pretty guttural, instinctual, raw music," says Barber, also known as Velvet Elvis. "That's the whole point. If it gets too slick and refined or anything, it doesn't sound like a bunch of hillbillies sitting around the still."
Lewis ordered 500 copies of "The Rockin' Blues" on vinyl and released them on his own brand-new label, Rock-a-Billy Record Co. They were distributed exclusively at Wax Trax in Denver because store co-owner Dave Stidman was an old friend. Stidman says Lewis's goal in life was to make one great record, and "The Rockin' Blues" is it. "It was really a great record," says Stidman. "It became kind of a legendary record around the world. After that, he said, 'I can probably do more.'"
Lewis's second single was "Rock an' Roll Religion." Once again, he ordered 500 copies, but they were cut incorrectly, designed for a record speed of somewhere between 33 and 40 rotations per minute. As a result, when you played one at 45 rpm, Willie & the String Poppers sounded like Alvin & the Chipmunks.
Lewis told Stidman to toss all 500 copies into the dumpster, but Stidman kept 100 of them. And so, as Lewis wrote in his autobiography, it became "one of the most rare, as well most certainly the very worst, record of all of the Rock-a-Billy Record Co. issues ever put out."
"Rock an' Roll Religion" also nearly killed him. Lewis took one of the messed-up singles home and played it a few times, getting angrier with each listen. He suddenly felt an excruciating pain in his chest, which turned out to be caused by a massive heart attack.
"Over [the] next twenty-four hours it was really touch and go," wrote Lewis. "At one point, I was actually clinically dead for over 30 minutes (although I don't remember very much of that). I was told so by Mary Louise and my doctor both. I guess it was just not my time to die, or I surely would have. I really should have died, to be totally honest about the whole thing. That experience sure changed my way of thinking about a lot of different things, though."
Delmer Spudd and the Spudnicks, one of Lewis's bands.
Courtesy of Tom Lundin.
It did not change his commitment to music, however. And after putting out a few more of his own songs, he started getting requests from other artists who wanted to put out their music on Rock-a-Billy Record Co. "Slowly but surely, the word seemed to get out, and I was suddenly inundated with bands from all over the world wanting records," Lewis wrote.
So he started releasing 45s by bands like the Tennessee Boys (who are actually from Portugal), Go Cat Go, Ronnie Dawson, King Cat & the Pharaohs, and High Noon. He got some distribution help from Stidman, financing the project in part by selling portions of his prized collection. He also got some help from another old friend, Robert Stallworth, whom he'd met in the '70s, when Stallworth was a medical student at the University of Colorado. Stallworth bought fifty copies of Lewis's first single, and he has supported Rock-a-Billy Record Co. ever since. He admired his friend's commitment to quality, saying that Lewis "was more into it for the music and being something of a supervisor of what was put out on his label. If it didn't sound right, he wouldn't press it up. It had to have some authenticity. It had to be real for him."
Even when it started picking up momentum, Lewis never looked at the label as a business, really. "I wasn't trying to make money with the company," he wrote. "I just wanted to issue great records by bands who were basically unknown, to try and help them become known."
Rock-a-Billy put out close to forty records in its three-decade-plus run, and a few more are slated for future release. In 2003, a German publisher released a book called The Story of a Hep Cat: Life and Music of Willie Lewis and His Rock-A-Billy Record Company, written by Sven Bergmann, and collectors from around the world eagerly awaited the label's new releases.
Lewis's wife, Mary Louise, had been diagnosed with diabetes, and as her condition deteriorated in recent years, Lewis committed himself to improving her life, no matter what the cost. He sold his record collection, some of it on eBay and the rest (between 15,000 and 20,000 records) to Stidman. "He really wanted to do whatever he could to make her comfortable and happy the last couple of years, which I thought was incredible," says Stidman. "I know that collection meant a lot to him."
Lewis helped pay for her medical bills, and the couple spent time indulging in things she enjoyed, such as trips to the casino. "He wanted to appease her," says Stallworth, "because he could see that she wasn't going to be here very long."
She passed away in April 2013, and he wasn't far behind. His funeral last month was packed with friends, colleagues and admirers. Among them were Jonny Barber and Tom Lundin, who looked at their old friend in the casket and agreed that he looked uncannily like Buffalo Bill. "That presence about him, like some hero out of the Old West," says Barber. "He's one of a kind, man."
Willie Lewis in 2012.
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