Vic Lewis 1919-2009
Victor Joseph Lewis was born in London in 1919 and began playing the banjo when he was three, later switching to guitar and also cornet. While still a schoolboy, he broke his arm on the football field and this, oddly – for the arm was eccentrically set – enabled him to play rhythm guitar for hour after hour without tiring.
Vic Lewis recalled playing with Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli before the 2nd world war (1939) and also associating with musicians such as the pianist George Shearing. Lewis transferred from the banjo to the four-string tenor guitar, inspired by the recordings of the American jazz guitarist Eddie Lang.
Dispatched to the Essex coast to benefit from the sea air, he located some like-minded players and formed his Swing String Quartet in 1935 which was soon being broadcast by the BBC and Radio Luxembourg.
Ron Burton (vln), Allan Hames – Vic Lewis (g), Joe Muslin (b).
Vic the Guitarist
These days Vic Lewis is, in my opinion an unjustly neglected pioneer of the jazz guitar. Vic was born in 1919 in North London – the son of moderately prosperous but indulgent parents who owned a successful jewellery business. At the early age of 3 he picked up his father’s tenor banjo and quickly mastered the instrument. Later, he was introduced to the instrument he was to become best known for – the ‘Quatro’ – a 4-string guitar popular at the time. His parents were closet early Jazz fans and regular record purchasers at Levy’s Music Emporium in Whitechapel. Levy’s had established the business in 1928 and began importing early US Jazz recordings, eventually in 1932 they founded ‘Levaphone’ Records, later to be renamed ‘Oriole’ and coincidently in the 30’s/40’s the sole distributor of Django Reinhardt’s oeuvre.
Vic’s early influences included Eddie Condon whom he was later to befriend and significantly, Eddie Lang. In the late 30s his interest in Jazz led him to establish his own quartet until a lucky break in a talent contest resulted in a number of radio appearances. Rather than enter the family Jewellery business, Vic decided to become a professional musician. His eternally indulgent parents financed a journey to New York, where upon the personal recommendation of Leonard Feather he sat in with amongst others Zutty Singleton, Joe Marsala, Pee Wee Russell and the man who was to become his close friend and mentor, Eddie Condon.
Whilst in New York he recorded a session that for many years lay neglected and unrecognised. A few of the recordings were eventually released but surprisingly they were for the most part overlooked. Upon his return to the UK and at the outbreak of war Vic enlisted into the RAF and joined the service band ‘Buddy Featherstonhaugh’s Radio Sextet’, and after Buddy’s departure reinvented itself as the ‘Vic Lewis – Jack Parnell Jazzmen’. Around 1944 Vic and Jack teamed up with George Chisholm, several of the Squadronaires, Johnny Mince and 3 of his US orchestra, then resident at the ‘Palladium’ and recorded a number of landmark sessions with Parlophone Records. After the War Vic collaborated with Stan Kenton and enlisted a band, which largely played Kenton inspired arrangements. This band persisted in various incarnations until 1960 when Vic segued into management, managing amongst others, Elton John, Dudley Moore and Nina Simone.
Vic’s recordings are difficult to locate, although it is worth searching out a (deleted) 2003 CD on Upbeat – URCD 192 showcasing his pioneering 1938 New York jam sessions. – thanks to Alex B for this contribution.
Squatty Roo and Angry, recorded during the Vic Lewis Jam Sessions at Levy’s Recording Studio in New Bond Street on 12th December 1942. Jimmy Skidmore, Jimmy McMillan and Harry Hayes (alto) guested with regulars Buddy Featherstonehaugh (tenor), Don MacCaffer (trombone), Vic Lewis (guitar), Ken Sykora (Rhythm Guitar) Frank Clark (bass) and Jack Parnell (drums). Those recordings were included on the Vic Lewis Jam Session LP Volume 5: 1938 – 1946 and so are, in fact, Ken Sykora’s first professional recordings
In 1938, Lewis’s father paid for him to travel to New York. Leonard Feather, who had known Lewis in London, was now established in New York and he arranged for Lewis to play with the Joe Marsala band at the Hickory House. Joe Bushkin was the band’s pianist and Buddy Rich its drummer. Later that night Lewis found Nick’s in Greenwich Village and sat in with Bobby Hackett and Eddie Condon. The next morning the band agreed to make some acetate recordings with Lewis as a souvenir for him, and these, not at all bad, were issued commercially in Britain in 1985.
In August 1952 Lewis collapsed twice on stage with heart trouble and rested for 8 weeks. On his return his agent, had arranged for the band to back Frankie Laine on tour. This was so successful that they toured with Johnnie Ray. Despite financial help from his mother, in 1960 Lewis’s band failed in the face of the challenge from rock music. From 1959 onwards Lewis worked mostly as a booking agent, forming a partnership with an ex-professional wrestler, Bill Benny.
In his later years he did much work for charity – for which he was made MBE in 2007 – produced albums by his beloved West Coast jazz musicians, and published books. The last of them, the lavish My Life In Jazz, (2006) featured hundreds of photographs of Vic with the famous, from Lester Young to Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole.
He died in London on February 9th, 2009 a short while before his 90th birthday.
In 1959 a nine piece group titled ‘Vic Lewis and His Group’ recorded one side of an LP under the title ‘Leonard Feather presents…Jazz from two sides’ for the Concept label, presumably for the American market.
Vic Lewis and his Group – June 24th, 1959 (Concept VL5)
Eddie Blair, Les Condon (tp), George Chisholm (tb), Roy East (as), Ronnie Scott (ts), Ronnie Ross (bs), Alan Branscombe (p), Bill Sutcliffe (b), Dave Pearson (d), Vic Lewis (dir).
I Never Knew A Love Like This/Salt Peanuts/Mound Bayou/Little Girl/Pennsylvania Turnpike*/Stanhope Place*.
(*Vocalion CD – Vic Lewis & His Big Band – Tea Break, Back Again & Jazz From Two Sides)