Hickory resident and former original band member with Gary Lewis and the Playboys, David Walker, spoke to the Hickory Rotary Club on Thursday, June 27th. Walker played rhythm guitar, drums and sang vocals with the legendary sixties rock band. Other original band members included drummer Gary Lewis, son of comedian Jerry Lewis, Allan Ramsay on bass, David Costell on lead guitar, and John West on cordovox (hand-held electronic accordion). The group had 17 Billboard chart singles including number one “This Diamond Ring” in 1965.
From 1961 – 1963 the group performed popular sixties hits of various artists as a “summer job”, living on the beach and walking to work at the Surf Lounge. They were popular in the Los Angeles area playing regularly at the Surf Lounge and opening for some of the big name acts of the early sixties such as Jan & Dean, Johnny Rivers, and Dick Dale and the Dell Tones.
In the summer of 1964, the band was discovered by record producer Snuff Garrett with Liberty Records. Snuff Garrett knew conductor and musical director Lou Brown, who worked with Gary’s father, actor and comedian, Jerry Lewis. It was Brown who prompted Garrett to check out the band, even though Garrett lived just two doors down from Gary’s famous father. At the time the band was called Gary and the Playboys with Walker as the group’s lead vocalist and Gary Lewis, the band’s drummer. It was the Lewis family and their show business connections that helped to provide much of the band’s equipment, rehearsal facilities (the Lewis family estate), and later the use of recording studios.
Soon, with the help of producer Garrett and arranger Leon Russell, the band’s popularity began to skyrocket. The band auditioned for a job at Disneyland and was hired to perform at the Space Bar in Tomorrowland. That gig was so popular that word began to spread, and they were soon regularly playing to packed houses.
In 1965 all of the band members signed contracts with Gary and his mother Patty Palmer (born Esther Calonico), and became employees of ESTA Music. The group was renamed Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Gary Lewis became lead vocalist and drummer.
The band’s first single, “This Diamond Ring” shot straight to number one. More Top 10 hits followed such as “Count Me In” (# 2), “Save Your Heart for Me” (# 2), “She’s Just My Style” (# 3), “Everybody Loves a Clown” (# 4), “Sure Gonna Miss Her”, (# 9), and “Green Grass” (# 8). In all, the band had eight gold singles, seventeen Top 40 hits, four gold albums and sold 45 million records worldwide.
The group appeared on television shows such as Ed Sullivan, Shindig, Hullabaloo, Jerry Lewis Show, Tonight Show, Mike Douglas, Nashville Now, and Wolfman Jack and films such as Swinging Summer, The Family Jewels, Out of Sight, My Boyfriends Back, and Rock-A-Bye Baby.
Although the band name may have suggested otherwise, the group members projected a clean-cut, wholesome image – hair was short and neat, faces were clean shaven, and the group performed in coat and tie.
Walker said the fellows, “taken as a group, were just five average musicians, that included three singers, only one of whom who had professional training. Basically we were a good lounge – bar band with a good local following.”
He characterized his experience as a great adventure that is a great a case study for opportunistic, creative marketing. “We were a very average talent garage band with the son of a Hollywood star as lead singer. We met some of the best real musicians in the world (such as The Beatles, Beach Boys, Glenn Campbell, Sonny and Cher, Wilson Picket, Shirrelles, Galdys Night and the Pips, The Crystals, Four Tops, Benny King and Drifters, Tom Jones, Tommy Rowe, Mark Knopfler, BB King, and John Lee Hooker) and I am alive to talk about it.”