Bandleader, Guitarist and Agent
The friendship between Stan Kenton and me was probably one of the closest between two men in the whole of history,” said the musician and businessman Vic Lewis, a man driven compulsively to make claims that seemed like braggadocio but often, when checked out, turned out to be true. He also boasted of having played with Bobby Hackett and Tommy Dorsey in New York in 1938, and playing trombone in Stan Kenton’s band – unlikely achievements for an English guitarist of modest talent – but both claims were true. Over his career, Lewis led a big band and managed the Beatles, Shirley Bassey and Cilla Black among others. He was someone who was at once a hustler, but also touchingly naive.
Victor Joseph Lewis was born in London in 1919. He was named Victor at his grandfather’s insistence, in celebration of the Allies’ victory in the First World War. He began playing the banjo when he was three, switching to guitar, and also learned to play the 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. In 1935 he formed the Vic Lewis Swing String Quartet, which was soon being broadcast by the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. 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 September 1939 Lewis volunteered for the RAF. Posted to RAF Brampton in Huntingdon, he met Jack Parnell and Ken Thorne, two musicians who were to play a big part in his music. When they were posted to High Wycombe, Parnell played drums and Buddy Featherstonehaugh tenor sax with Lewis in what became the Buddy Featherstonehaugh Radio Rhythm Club Sextet; they were given time off to broadcast for the BBC. The presence of military bands in London, including Glenn Miller’s, gave Lewis the chance to play again with some skilled Americans. The Featherstonehaugh group made a couple of dozen records for HMV. Lewis and Parnell persuaded Parlophone to give them a recording session and the resulting band, the Vic Lewis and Jack Parnell Jazzmen, recorded 31 titles. One of them, “Ugly Child”, sold almost 50,000, then a tremendous achievement for a British jazz record.
When the band broke up, the Vic Lewis Jazzmen began broadcasting for the BBC. The pianist was Ken Thorne, a doctor of music and a church organist who was later to write brilliant orchestrations for Lewis’s bands. Under Thorne’s influence, Lewis’s musical tastes changed rapidly and in November 1946 he introduced his first big band under the billing of “The Music of Tomorrow by the Band of Today”. After touring Britain the band appeared at the 1949 Paris Jazz Festival and toured Holland and Ireland. The band contained the cream of young British musicians including, at various times, Tubby Hayes, Kathy Stobart, Ronnie Scott, Kenny Wheeler and Stan Reynolds. Lewis became obsessive about the “progressive” and very loud music of Stan Kenton. He adapted many of Kenton’s arrangements and tried to emulate everything that Kenton did, for some time affecting an excruciating accent in his stage announcements that he hoped was similar to Kenton’s.
In August 1952 Lewis collapsed twice on stage with heart trouble and rested for eight weeks. On his return his agent, Harold Davison, had arranged for the band to back Frankie Laine on tour. This was so successful that they toured with Johnnie Ray and appeared with him at the 1955 Royal Command Performance. But the band’s first tour of the US in 1956 was as part of a rock’n’roll package that included Bill Haley’s Comets, Chuck Berry and The Platters, and audiences were not amused by the band. They toured again in 1958, mostly to universities, much more successfully, and on their 1959 visit, with Dudley Moore as the band’s pianist, they appeared mostly at military camps, but also at New York’s Birdland on Broadway.
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. One of his first clients was Dudley Moore. He ventured briefly into song composition and then took up record production. He brought over Nat “King” Cole to tour and for many years represented Donovan. After a partnership with the giant General Artists Corporation of America (GAC) proved one-sided, Lewis reverted to the Vic Lewis Agency and was soon representing Andy Williams in this country and also throughout Europe. In 1964, in collaboration with Brian Epstein, he arranged for the Beatles’ first American tour, although manoeuvrings by GAC ensured that he didn’t receive any commission.
In 1965 Epstein bought the Vic Lewis Agency and appointed Lewis to the board of his company, NEMS. By now Lewis had become exalted. Some of the musicians in his big band, playing at a session, recall his entry into the studio wearing an exotic white fur coat. “Hello, chaps,” he said. “Still slaving at the coal face?” After Epstein’s death in 1967 Lewis’s power increased and, by 1969, he had signed Elton John to the agency. The company changed hands a couple of times and when Lewis found himself unable to get along with new owners in 1977, he left.
He next formed an association with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), arranging concerts and conducting it on nine albums. He made an auspicious return to jazz in 1984 when he put a big band together to record with the visiting American jazz musicians Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank, stars of the Californian West Coast scene. The following year he recorded Shank again, this time with the BBC Radio Big Band, and in November 1985 he organised a charity gala at the Royal Festival Hall with the RPO, Dizzy Gillespie and Shank.
An avid collector, Lewis had to have every note that his heroes Gerry Mulligan and Stan Kenton had ever recorded. Other collectors filled up the gaps, but found Lewis rather parsimonious when it came to reciprocating. 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 about his favourite subject, himself. 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 was not deterred by the fact that many of them, like the 6ft 5in Stan Kenton, towered over his unprepossessing and later portly 5ft 4in: “The little man on top of the wedding cake” was the tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins’s affectionate description.