It’s fairly unusual for a band to hit No. 1 on the charts with their very first single – and especially considering they had never even gone on a tour before. But that’s exactly what happened in February 1965 when the debut by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the tale of wobegotten love “This Diamond Ring” topped the Billboard listing. It ranked higher that week than both “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers and “My Girl” by the Temptations.
Six other AM gold top ten singles would quickly follow including “Count Me In,” “Save Your Heart for Me,” “She’s Just My Style,” “Green Grass,” “Sure Gonna Miss Her,” and “Everybody Loves a Clown” – the last song inspired by Gary’s father, stage and screen comedian Jerry Lewis. Gary’s 1967 draft into the U.S. Army and changing musical tastes when he returned stalled the band’s career, but Lewis has been a staple on package shows since then.
He returns to the Houston area with a fellow ‘60s hitmaking Gary (Puckett, and the Union Gap) for a dual bill. A longer set time will allow him to dig deeper into his catalog for an audience that now spans his original fans, their kids, and their kids.
“Whoever thought that I would be playing to three generations? The younger people say their grandmothers or mothers used to play our songs and then they check us out,” he says, adding that any can access his music from decade ago with the touch of a computer keyboard.
“It’s such a technical world and I believe it’s [kept the music] around. I am amazed at how many younger people will come up to me and know not just the hits, but B-sides and album cuts.”
Lewis says he and the current version of the Playboys use the extra time to play covers by people that influenced him like ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon and ‘Love Potion NO. 9’ by the Clovers. And also some of his other songs that made the top 40 like ‘My Heart’s Symphony’ and ‘(You Don’t Have to) Paint a Picture.”
But back in 1965, Lewis and his group were in the fresh flush of fame, so much that he eventually had to move from his original instrument (the drums), to guitar. As the group’s singer, audiences wanted to see him up front and not in the back behind cymbals.
And in those days – before iTunes, YouTube, and MTV – every band was eager to appear on a nationally-televised TV variety program like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “American Bandstand,” and “Hullabaloo” as the quickest way to reach the most people (and record buying teens) as possible at the same time with their music. After all, it worked out OK for those four longhairs from Liverpool. Lewis and the band did them all, but had relatively laid back approach.
“I never felt pressure being on those shows or competition with other acts, but the TV shows were important. We got on the ‘Ed Sullivan’ show with ‘This Diamond Ring’ and we got asked back five more times and that broke all those singles to the country,” he recalls. “People would have to work 20 years to get one shot on Sullivan! And ‘Hulabaloo’ was the first network rock show going to the entire country. They were the internet of today.”
More time consuming and grueling were the package tours that crammed multiple acts on buses for one-nighters across the country, with just enough time for each singer or group to do a few numbers and get off the stage. Gary Lewis and the Playboys were part of that in 1966 on “Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars,” and returned the next year as well.
“It was funny because the people that were on that first tour were people that I enjoyed listening to before I even got into rock and roll. Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Brian Hyland, the Yardbirds, the Crystals, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, I couldn't believe I was on tour with those guys!” Lewis says.
He adds that on today’s package tours, he’s become friends with ‘60s contemporaries that he didn’t know back then like Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, the Buckinghams, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles, and current tour mate Gary Puckett. In fact, the two Garys drove together across the country to each gig on the 2013 "Happy Together" '60s package tour.
As for their recorded output, it features the playing of not just the group, but also the fabled L.A. session musicians the Wrecking Crew – who did similar services for the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and dozens of other hit acts.
Lewis and producer Snuff Garrett have had sometimes differing opinions over the years on the topic about who is playing what on the final vinyl, but Lewis is steadfast in his recollection.
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“The Wrecking Crew didn’t play on the tracks, they did the overdubs. I wasn’t upset about that because these players were seasoned and very good. We were too young to have any experience,” he says. “Plus, having Leon Russell for our arranger, he took care of all that stuff and tastefully add things. It was a great team, Snuffy Garrett, Leon Russell, and myself.”
Today, Gary Lewis says he’s both happy to still be on the road playing his songs for audiences. A few years ago he released a new single on iTunes, “You Can’t Go Back.” Though that seems exactly what his 2018 audiences want to do.
“No matter where I go, I have fun doing it, because I’m grateful for what I have. I realize that the fans have put me wherever I am. It’s not hard to feel blessed,” Lewis sums up. “I have plans to never stop! That’s my plan. I’m 73, but I don’t feel old, my body doesn’t feel old, and I just want to continue as long as I can.”
“Stars of the Sixties” with Gary Lewis & the Playboys and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap play 7:30 p.m. on November 9 at the Stafford Centre, 10505 Cash. For information, call 281-208-6900 or visit StaffordCentre.com Tickets $47-$89.