The latest chapter in the series of nearly-lost performances by tenor-saxophonist Sonny Lewis is from a long-forgotten venue in San Jose, California called the 3+1 Club. Recorded on Dec. 28, 1990, the new release includes interpretations of four well-known jazz standards, and features the saxophonist in rare form. At the time, Sonny’s good friend pianist Rob Catterton was trying to help him advance his career. “I had known Sonny for around three years and was well aware of how great a player he was. So I packed up every piece of gear that I had and Sonny and I drove down to the club. The first night my reel-to-reel was accidentally plugged into the lights so those recordings were lost, although some of the songs were filmed and can be seen on YouTube. Fortunately, I got clean recordings of the music from the second night.” Over 30 years later, the performances on this EP are being released for the first time.
When these recordings were made, Sonny Lewis had already been a professional musician for three decades. After a year on the clarinet, he switched permanently to tenor sax when he was 14. Soon he was playing R&B in Boston nightclubs, although his main interest was jazz. Sonny attended the Berklee School of Music for two years, and then went to Europe where he had opportunities to sit in with the Bud Powell trio, work with pianist Kenny Drew, and perform in France, Germany, and Libya. During this period he also played dance music with composer Terry Riley at a European US Army base, and was asked to appear on the first performance of Riley’s important minimalist work “In C.”
A leading musician in the San Francisco Bay Area starting in the mid-1960s, Sonny worked in many local clubs when he was not touring with Barry White or the popular R&B group The Whispers. Despite his touring schedule and his recordings on a string of gold albums from The Whispers, he only made infrequent appearances on jazz records, including two albums with drummer Smiley Winters in the early 1970s, and a pair of projects with trumpeter David Hardiman, including a big band record. When a hand injury (focal dystonia) forced his retirement from playing in the late 1990s, it looked as if his musical legacy would be lost to history.
But luckily Sonny Lewis had saved a paper bag filled with over 30 cassettes of his live performances. Through the miracle of modern technology and some expert assistance, Rob Catterton was able to save some of the best moments and make them not only listenable, but sound as if they had been professionally recorded. He has released “Back In The Sixties” (1966), the single “All Of You” (1977), and “Fillmore Street Live” (1988), featuring Sonny during three periods of his career.
For the “Electric” EP, Sonny Lewis and his regular quartet of the period are heard in top form. Sonny recalls, “Just before this, I was on the road with The Whispers. Our keyboardist Percy Scott was also in that band. We traveled around the country hitting some top spots including Madison Square Garden, playing opposite artists like Luther Vandross and the O’Jays. When we returned to San Francisco, I put together this quartet. We played in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, at some private parties but mostly clubs. We were pretty popular at the time. The 3 + 1 Club had a nice ambiance to it. It was located in an industrial park where there were not any neighbors. We had a good opportunity to stretch out. People dug the music and a lot of folks came in to see us. As long as they could clap their hands, snap their fingers, and tap their foot to it, it was cool.”
On the “Electric” EP, Sonny is backed by the following group of highly skilled musicians, featuring electric bass and keyboards for a more powerful sound from the rhythm section:
• Keyboardist Percy Scott played with Sonny for many years, including the “Fillmore Street Live” set in 1988. A talented soloist, composer, and arranger, he seems to have only made one other jazz recording. Percy played alongside Sonny on David Hardiman’s Big Band album. He has worked steadily in the Bay Area for many years, and is widely respected.
• Bassist Charles Thomas started out as a cellist in junior high before switching to bass. He has performed in a wide variety of musical contexts, including jazz, classical, pop, funk, and reggae. Along the way he has worked with Esther Phillips, Les McCann, Billy Paul, John Handy, the Fifth Dimension and quite a few others, including the group Pride and Joy. In addition to being a valuable bassist, Thomas is also an arranger, producer, and vocalist, as well a composer of film scores. He is heard on electric bass throughout the 3 + 1 Club performances.
• Drummer Jack Dorsey moved to San Francisco in 1968, and has since worked with a long list of notables including: Jimmy Witherspoon, Lavay Smith, Etta Jones, Ed Kelly, Buddy Miles, Little Anthony, Jose Feliciano, Denise Perrier, and more recently Macy Blackman and the Mighty Fines. Additionally, he has performed on many film and television soundtracks, worked in the studios, and was also an influential educator.
The night of Dec. 28, 1990 found Sonny Lewis and his quartet in peak form for the “Electric” sessions, but the four songs on this EP were originally almost impossible to save. “Two songs were recorded on a reel to reel and two were on a cassette,” remembers Rob Catterton. “When I first played them, the cassette ran slow and the reel-to-reel tape ran fast. They were so completely out of whack that they were barely listenable. But I ended up tuning the tapes to my piano in the proper key and it all worked out. Independent sound engineer Mark Fuller finished the restoration of the music, and now it sounds pristine.”
The set begins with Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar.” Without sounding at all like the composer, Sonny Lewis gives the piece a soulful spin of his own during his five choruses, playing a perfectly constructed yet spontaneous improvisation that ranks with his very best recorded statements. Percy Scott keeps the momentum flowing and gets a lot of color out of his Yamaha DX7. Charles Thomas plays melodically in his spot (one can imagine singing the notes that he plays), there is a fiery tradeoff with Jack Dorsey (listen to how the musicians echo each other’s ideas), and then the joyful melody closes the memorable performance.
A change of pace is offered on Rod Temperton’s “The Lady In My Life,” a Michael Jackson hit. Percy Scott introduced Sonny to the tune, and delivered this innovative arrangement. The quartet sounds quite comfortable on this R&B groove piece which the keyboardist successfully turned into soul jazz.
Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” is still a favorite of Sonny’s. In fact, another rendition of it can be heard from two years earlier on Fillmore Street Live. This version, after an inventive keyboard solo, has the tenor sounding particularly adventurous, with some heated double-time runs yet often referring to the melody (a la Dexter Gordon).
The program concludes with Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia” which is quite a tour-de-force. Sonny creates a stormy tenor solo full of fire, taking it a bit outside during his three choruses yet never losing sight of the classic song. After another excellent keyboard solo, Sonny finishes the night with an emotional statement that makes one very glad that this performance has been saved.
The saxophonist expresses all of our sentiments by saying, “My hat’s off to Rob for making these tapes sound so good.” And our hats are tipped to Sonny Lewis and his group for playing such timeless music.
Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian
Sprawling, 14-minute version of the Cole Porter jazz standard, recorded by everyone from Miles Davis to Billie Holiday. Recorded March 16, 1976, in a concert setting at the Jazz Loft, San Francisco. Featuring Sonny Lewis on tenor sax, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Brian Cooke on Fender Rhodes piano, Chuck Metcalf, bass, and Bob Bray on drums. Sonny Lewis remembers the concert hall session from Mar. 26, 1977: “On Sunday afternoons at the Jazz Loft, there was a lot of nice music, and I sometimes performed there. I had played with trumpeter Eddie Henderson in different bands through the years and was always happy to have him in my group. I met pianist Brian Cooke back in the summer of 1961 when we played together in Europe. He became a city planner in the East Bay and wasn’t doing too much music at the time but was always a good player and a fine writer. Bassist Chuck Metcalf, who was originally from Canada, was also an excellent player as was drummer Bob Bray whose gig this actually was.” Cole Porter’s “All Of You” is taken for an extended ride by the quintet. First Sonny plays the melody out of tempo while just accompanied by Cooke’s electric piano. The melody is repeated with plenty of feeling with the full rhythm section, Henderson takes a muted trumpet solo a little reminiscent of Miles Davis, and then Sonny makes a major statement, keeping the melody in mind even when his improvisation is at its stormiest. Brian Cooke takes a fine solo on his Fender Rhodes that keeps the music swinging before Henderson has the closing melody. “All Of You” adds to the growing musical legacy of Sonny Lewis, a top tenor-saxophonist whose music deserves to be enjoyed. -- Scott Yanow, Jazz historian and author.
Recorded at Webster Street Studios, San Francisco, CA c. 1965. Personnel: Sonny Lewis, tenor sax; Tom Harrell, trumpet; Jym Young, piano; Harley White, Sr., bass; D. Young, drums
The musical legacy of Sonny Lewis, a talented saxophonist with a wide-ranging career, was almost lost to history.
Born and raised in Boston, Sonny Lewis began on the clarinet when he was 13 before switching to tenor the following year. As a teenager, he was already a professional musician, playing R&B gigs. After attending the Berklee School Of Music for two years, he went to Europe, playing jazz gigs in France and Germany. During this period Sonny also sat in with the innovative bop pianist Bud Powell, worked with pianist Kenny Drew, and played in Tripoli, Libya. At home in any setting, Sonny Lewis performed with Beat writer William S. Burroughs, played dance music with composer Terry Riley at a U.S. Army base in Verdun, and was a part of the original performance of Riley’s influential minimalist work “In C.”
After moving to the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-1960s, Sonny became an important part of the Bay Area music scene. He toured with Barry White for a year, worked with Merle Saunders, and performed for many years with R&B group The Whispers, appearing on many of their hit records. More importantly from the jazz standpoint, during this time he also led his own groups in SF, working with a variety of top local musicians. Sonny was recorded on a pair of albums with drummer Smiley Winters (1970-72) that included altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald, and with trumpeter David Hardiman on two occasions: a big band album from 1978, and a privately-issued octet date. As good as he sounds in his spots, none of these recordings really put the focus on the tenor sax. After a notable career, a hand condition (focal dystonia) forced his retirement from music by the late 1990s.
Fortunately the Sonny Lewis story does not stop there, due to his friendship with pianist-producer Rob Catterton, who remarks, “I first met Sonny at a session in 1987. I had never been exposed to anyone playing at that level before, and It inspired me to go back to music school for seven years. We became good friends and rehearsed quite a bit, just the two of us.” They stayed in touch, and many years later, Sonny brought Rob a paper bag full of over 30 cassettes. Many were recorded on handheld players, but there were a few soundboard tapes mixed in that were clear enough for release. Two of the cassettes documented his playing at a major San Francisco street fair in 1998, and have been released as ‘Fillmore Street Live.’
“Ten or fifteen years ago, before publishing music via the Internet was possible, Sonny brought me a reel-to-reel in a deteriorated white box which would eventually be released as ‘Back in the Sixties.’ The tape kind of floated around the house until Sonny asked me about in 2017. I worked on it with an engineer at that time, but it was in rough shape and wasn’t really releasable. During this period, I was also searching the Internet for a local engineer to remaster my solo piano Grateful Dead tribute record. Because he only lives two towns away, the Dead’s engineer, Jeffrey Norman, came up in my search. I sent him my self-recorded album, and he agreed to remaster it, saying that he’d always wanted to do a solo piano project. During this time, I sent him a cut from Sonny’s reel-to-reel, and he was struck by it, and offered to help with the restoration.”
Catterton continues, “Jeffrey told me about a company in Nantucket, Massachusetts, Plangent Process, founded by Jamie Howarth. They have developed a patented process to restore audio, which has been used on recordings from artists including Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, and the Grateful Dead. So, we sent Sonny’s tape to Massachusetts, and when I got it back it was transformed. I then turned it over to independent remastering engineer Mark Fuller, who did brilliant work. The recording now sounds fine, which is a remarkable accomplishment.”
Recorded in 1966, the five pieces on “Back In The Sixties” are the earliest existing jazz recordings of Sonny Lewis. Sonny remembers, “We were playing at a club, Haight Levels, and decided to use the studio on Webster Street to record some of our better tunes. Our trumpeter was a student at Stanford, Tom Harrell. Even at that early age, he was a dynamite player, as you can hear.” Only 20 at the time, Harrell would go to have an illustrious career both as a soloist and a composer. Tom would be with Sonny’s quintet for a couple of years before leaving to join the Stan Kenton Orchestra. This set predates Harrell’s previously known first recordings by three years.
The rhythm section is comprised of pianist Jym Young, bassist Harley White, Sr., and a drummer only identified as D. Young. “For the life of me, I can’t remember his name,” says Sonny. “All I remember is that he was from Portland.” Jym Young’s only other known recordings are from 1966: an album of his own, “Puzzle Box”, and tenor-saxophonist Dewey Redman’s “Look For The Black Star.” Sonny continues, “Jym Young’s playing reminded me of McCoy Tyner, and he was a fine writer, too.”
Harley White, Sr. is a distinguished bassist and educator who worked with Earl Hines in the 1970s. In addition to recording two sessions with Hines in 1976 and the Jym Young album, White is on albums led by Smiley Winters, pianist Ed Kelly, singers Rhonda Benin and Margie Baker, saxophonist Paul Stephens, pianist Jessica Williams, the Mel Sharpe Orchestra, and along with Sonny in the David Hardiman Big Band.
The Sonny Lewis Quintet begins their set with “Confrontation.” Sonny says, “It sounds like a Wayne Shorter tune, although I’m not positive who was the composer. Tom Harrell wrote this one out for us. He could listen to anything once and write it out in a few minutes.” The assertive hard bop piece has an infectious African rhythm that alternates with a brief straight ahead section. Harrell and Young take concise solos during this brief performance with Sonny taking fills at the beginning and end of the track. Although pretty advanced, the song is catchy enough that it could have been used as a theme song for the group.
“Full Moon, Empty Arms,” is based on a Rachmaninoff classical melody. Modernized, the theme sounds a bit like something that McCoy Tyner would have recorded. The adventurous Tom Harrell arrangement has a passionate tenor solo, and an explorative improvisation by Young.
“Calling In The Woods” was written by Sonny Lewis when he lived in Paris. He remembers, “It has some interesting rhythms and is kind of a celebratory, happy piece.” The first part features free playing with Young on thumb piano and plucking the grand piano, White often bowing his bass, some unidentified singing, and the feel of Africa. The second part features an African folk melody based strongly in the tradition of Abdullah Ibrahim. Sonny takes one of his finest recorded solos, displaying his very original tone and a melodic sensibility. Even when he takes the music a bit outside, Lewis still makes his horn sing and cry. Harrell takes a colorful spot of his own, Young is in fine form, and the unidentified drummer’s contributions perfectly fit the music.
The program concludes with “Straight Thru,” a quirky jazz waltz that Sonny thinks might have been composed by Jym Young. On this track, the saxophonist creates an intense tenor solo that makes one very glad that Rob Catterton and the talented group of sound engineers were able to save this music for posterity.
Rob summarizes the project: “Playing with Sonny Lewis made everyone want to reach higher, reach for the stars, and play as well as they possibly could because he played so great. It’s an honor to be able to work with his tapes and release some of his music to the public. They show how brilliant a saxophonist he was. And there will be more releases to come from different stages of his career.” -- Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author
Straight-ahead jazz performed live on Fillmore Street at a major San Francisco street fair. Featuring the innovative flute and tenor saxophone of Sonny Lewis, the album is powered by a superb rhythm section featuring Percy Scott on keyboards, Harley White, Sr. on bass, and Paul Tillman Smith on drums.
Sonny Lewis is a jazz legend who almost slipped away into history. A superior tenor-saxophonist and flutist based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1960s, Lewis made relatively few jazz recordings during his career. He can be heard with Smiley Winters (playing next to altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald) and on two records with trumpeter Dr. David Hardiman, but until now, no albums have been released under his own name. The previously unknown music on “Fillmore Street Live” is a major find that gives us the chance to appreciate his inventive style and artistry.
Pianist Rob Catterton, who produced the release for his new label, Sonoma Coast Records, met Sonny Lewis at a session in 1987. "I was young and green but Sonny was gracious and very kind. After those sessions ended, I eventually summoned up the courage to call him, and we would rehearse on piano and tenor or flute, just the two of us. Sonny lost the ability to play in the late 1990s due to something called focal dystonia. Despite going to a hand specialist, he had to retire from playing. We’ve remained friends all these years, and recently he brought me 25 or 30 cassettes in a paper bag! They were mostly audience tapes, but two tapes stood out. They were recorded directly from the soundboard at an outdoor fair on Fillmore Street on July 2 and 3, 1988, and they really show what a great player Sonny Lewis was. As soon as I heard them, I knew this material had to be released."
At that point in time, Sonny Lewis had already had a productive career. A professional since he was a teenager in Boston, he gained early experience playing with R&B and rock-and-roll bands. Always a versatile player, Sonny could fit comfortably into almost any setting. After studying at the Berklee School of Music, Sonny spent a period in the early 1960s working in Europe, performing with Bud Powell, Kenny Drew, poet William S. Burroughs, and classical composer Terry Riley, and appearing on the original recording of Riley's “In C.”
After moving to San Francisco in the early 1960s, Sonny created his own combos featuring several young musicians who would go on to fame, including Eddie Henderson and Tom Harrell. During the 1970s he went out on the road, touring with Barry White for a year, gigging with Merle Saunders and Art Blakey, and touring and recording with R&B group The Whispers for over a decade. Sonny played on many of The Whispers’ hit recordings, including three gold albums.
Returning to San Francisco in the 1980s, Sonny Lewis led a series of quintets featuring vocalists, including recording artist Micki Lynn, who was also featured on these dates. The Fillmore Street sessions have already provided enough material to release a full album of incredibly well-played instrumental jazz, and Sonoma Coast Records may be able to obtain the rights to release Ms. Lynn’s set in the future.
Sonny Lewis' quartet includes Percy Scott, a well-known Bay Area keyboardist for over 30 years. Percy toured extensively with the Whispers, and appears playing next to Lewis on one of David Hardiman's albums. Bassist Harley White Sr., an influential educator, has been prominent in Northern California for some time, recording with pianists Earl Hines, Ed Kelly and Jessica Williams, singer Margie Baker, and many others. In addition, Harley worked with all-stars Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Stitt. Drummer Paul Smith recorded with Sonny Simmons (“Manhattan Egos,” 1969), violinist Michael White, bassist Paul Brown, and organist Gerry Richardson. All three of his fine musicians give Sonny Lewis strong support, with each of them taking concise and consistently worthy solos.
Morning Of The Carnival This vibrant interpretation of the Brazilian classic focuses on Sonny Lewis' virtuosic and creative flute playing. His double-time lines are impressive, as is the advanced theory behind his playing. Percy Scott delivers a fine solo on keyboards, and Harley White Sr. quotes both "Chicago" and "Fascinating Rhythm" during his bass solo.
In Your Own Sweet Way This track introduces Sonny Lewis' tenor sax with its large and distinctive tone. Sonny makes the reed cry and moan, and each of the musicians, including Harley White on bowed bass, has the opportunity to make a strong statement. Seven Steps To Heaven An up-tempo number that features Sonny’s sax sailing effortlessly over the chord changes. The dizzying flow of ideas at a fast tempo shows his virtuosity, which is solidified by both strong accompaniment and solos from the rhythm section.
All Blues An innovative interpretation of the Miles Davis classic. Most notable for the leader's explorative, soaring flute, this track includes a particularly inventive keyboard solo from Percy Scott and wonderful interplay between the airy flute and the growling bass line.
St. Thomas The program ends joyfully with a spirited rendition of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas," which includes some wailing tenor along with a solid Latin rhythm section powered by percussionist Richard Mann and drummer Paul Smith.
Fortunately, Rob Catterton has additional release plans for Sonny Lewis' music. "There will be other releases in the future including an early recording when trumpeter Tom Harrell was in his band in the late 1960s, and more sets from the 1988-96 period." An important historic recording that makes for an enjoyable listening experience, “Fillmore Street Live” features Sonny Lewis and his musicians in top form.
Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of 11 books including Trumpet Kings, The Jazz Singers and Jazz On Record 1917-76
Edited by Gwynn O'Gara, author of "Let Me Be Beautiful Like Sea Glass," and Rob Catterton.
Produced by Rob Catterton, 2019.
Cover art by Lizzy Layne Design.