"Setting the Gospel to Music"
“They said I started singing at age three and that I’d belt out ‘Turn Your Radio On‘ for anyone who would listen. Obviously, I don’t remember any of that so I’ll just have to take their word for it.
“I grew up around western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. I always looked forward to Saturday nights when we’d all gather around the old Philco battery radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Most of my family was musical. Everyone played something. My Grandpa Lewis was an old time fiddle player. I loved to listen to him play those old fiddle tunes like ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ ‘Bile Them Cabbage Down,’ and ‘Soldier’s Joy.’ My Grandmother picked a mean guitar and slapped a big stand-up bass. Dad played the guitar, as did a couple of his brothers. One uncle was an accomplished pianist and worked as a session musician and A & R man for a West Coast recording company.
“I was a teenager before we owned a TV, and since we couldn’t play the radio a lot because it would run the battery down, most of our family entertainment had to be ‘self-inflected.’ A lot of time was spent on the front porch or in the parlor pickin’ and grinnin’. They called them ’musicals’ back then. In those early years I hadn’t learned to play yet, but I really enjoyed listening.
From that heritage, I guess it’s no surprise that music became the most important thing in my life. Like most young boys, I went through different stages and interests, but music was always a ’constant.’
“When I was around thirteen, I learned my first chords on my Grandmother’s old Stella guitar. Back in those days, me and that old Stella became inseparable. Whether I was at the house or on the creek bank, I was banging on that guitar. In fact, I did a lot of practicing in the back seat of Dad’s old ’41 Plymouth when the rest of the family had to have a little relief from my string twanging. We had about six guitar pickers in our little church and I watched, listened and learned all I could from them.
“I joined the Air Force when I was seventeen and formed a band in England that played in the Officers and Enlisted Men’s Clubs. One guitar picker I played with was from Tupelo, MS, and had played with Elvis before his rise to stardom. Another band member had played with Grand Ole Opry star Marty Robbins. Me and my singing buddy, Fred Rowe, always loved to sing those old Louvin Brothers and Wilburn Brothers songs. We entered the ‘Tops In Blue Talent Contest,’ a worldwide USAF talent search, and won ‘Best Country Group’ in England, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
“After being discharged, I worked several Country bands around my hometown of Ft. Smith, AR. I had written a few songs with buddies in the Air Force, but along about this time I began to get more serious about my songwriting. I carried a sack of songs to Nashville in the early 60’s and actually got several of them signed with a couple of major publishers. I was fortunate to meet and become friends with Harlan Howard, the dean of all Country songwriters. Harlan was the writer of such hits as ‘Heartaches By the Number,’ ‘I Fall To Pieces,’ and ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.’ He took me under his wing and in the space of about three months, he taught me more about songwriting than I could have learned in two lifetimes on my own. I don’t recall him ever listening to any of my songs all the way through. He’d usually listen to the first verse, and maybe a couple of lines in the chorus, before shutting off the tape recorder and saying something like…’Wow! That’s a great idea for a song. Now why don’t you go write that.’
“In the mid 60’s after a severe bout with hepatitis which kept me bedridden for over a month, I rededicated my life to the Lord. Like many others I have talked with, I put my aspirations for musical success on the shelf. I guess I’m a slow learner, but it took me two years to realize that what I had been doing for the devil, I could do for the Lord. The catalyst for this great bolt of brilliance came from one of my old musician buddies who’d played with me in clubs. He had also gotten saved and invited me to a Gospel singing. I’ll never forget the feeling that night in Roland, OK., as I watched and listened to a dozen local groups and soloists magnify the Lord with their music. To say that I wanted to that would be a gross understatement. I HAD TO DO THAT.
“I started writing again. Only now instead of Country songs, it was Gospel songs. One of my first efforts was a song called ‘It Happened.’ It was recorded by my favorite group in the whole world at the time…The Happy Goodman Family. In 1967, we formed a group called the Hallelujah Minstrels. We practiced for six months before we sang anywhere other than the local church. We had guitars, a steel guitar and even drums. Drums were a no-no back in those days and pastors and congregations alike would give you a hard look of displeasure when you carried them up on the platform.
“The Minstrels became quite popular around the western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma area. As our popularity increased, so did the distance we would travel to sing. The only prerequisite to how far we would go was whether or not we could sing Sunday night and get back home in time for work Monday morning. I remember a lot of red-eye Mondays from those days.
“In 1970, we were signed to a recording contract with Skylite Records in Nashville. Three years later the group moved to Nashville to get closer to the center of the music industry. This was back before there were national charts, but our albums had reasonable success across the country. I continued to write and had more cuts by the Goodmans and other Gospel groups like the Kingsmen Quartet. Connie Smith, whom I still think is the greatest female Country singer that ever lived, recorded a couple of my Gospel songs. I was also honored to have the Grand Ole Opry’s legendary Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper record one of my songs just before Stoney passed away.
“In the late 1970’s, some of the group grew road-weary from traveling so much, and we disbanded the Minstrels. I went on to evangelize and pastor in the Assemblies of God organization. Then in 1991 I was offered the position of Publishing Coordinator for Eddie Crook’s Chestnut Mound Music Group. At that time, Chestnut Mound was probably the most successful publisher of Gospel music in the nation. I wore that hat until the company was sold in 1998 to Cal IV Entertainment. That tenure was one of the highlights of my life. I was privileged to work with some of Gospel music’s finest artists and songwriters.
“After the sale of Chestnut Mound, my wife Laura and I worked with the Gospel Voice Magazine for a while. At the same time, we also began to expand our own ministry, which has evolved into the current ministry of Lewis & Lewis.
“One of the most frequent questions we're asked as we criss-cross the country is, ‘Are you related to the Lewis Family?’ (The tremendous bluegrass Gospel singing group.) My answer is, ‘Probably.’ My grandparents migrated to Arkansas from Georgia. The Lewis Family lives in Georgia, so I figure there’s a good chance that back there somewhere we might be related. I’ve thought about shaking the family tree and looking into it but I’m afraid I might wind up being kin to Little RoyJ!"
©2008 Lewis & Lewis