Lewis was a fixture in the French Quarter, where he would sit on stoops, shouting come-ons to passersby and offering to play any tune from any genre. “What do you want to hear?” he’d ask “Anything you like.” He’d play his tunes, tell listeners that he played with James Brown’s band, and encourage tourists to pose with his trombone. He always wore a smile. Even when Hurricane Katrina was approaching, Lewis kept playing. “I’ll be here tomorrow, I’m not leaving,” he told USA Today. “I’ve been through typhoons, monsoons, tornadoes, hurricanes and every other phoon, soon or storm. I’m not worried.”
Lewis’ birthday party (see the photo above) was one of our first New Orleans experiences in researching our Still Singing the Blues series. The October 2009 party, which we detailed in this blog post, was held at a bar called The Place to Be, “located on a non-descript commercial strip on Claiborne Avenue in the city’s Central City neighborhood. An employee unlocked the front door to admit us, and once inside, we were immediately welcomed as if we were old friends in a family rec room. The ceilings were low; Christmas lights hung over the bar; and red light bulbs filled the ceiling-fan sockets. Several women dished out large places of ribs with red beans and rice—free to customers on Saints game days.”
As we described at the time:
In keeping with local tradition, well-wishers pinned dollar bills onto Lewis’ shirt as he got ready to play an electrifying set. He was joined by some top-flight musicians, including blues guitarist John T. Lewis (below, red shirt), who has played with R&B legends like Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”) and Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-in-Law”); Robert “BJ” Harvey, the bass guitarist for Soul Queen Irma Thomas; keyboard player Jake Francis; and crooner extraordinaire C.P. Love, who has opened for the likes of B.B. King and whose voice filled the room with a tangible charge. When the drummer, Tokyo native Miyumi Shara, was introduced, a table full of women in Saints T-shirts shouted, “Sister!”
This was a bar full of friends celebrating the birthday of one of their own, and the music sizzled with an emotional intensity born of that intimacy. Customers leaned into the musicians to whisper requests; they danced at their tables; they threw their heads back in laughter as Doc Lewis wove this way through the bar playing his trombone in the faces of his loved ones. They traded good-natured banter with the trombonist about how many weeks one properly celebrates a birthday. A bartender recruited several patrons to carry in even more food from a waiting car.
Lewis’ party became the opening scene for Part 2 of our series, “Crescent City Blues,” which you can hear here. His banter, as you’ll hear, is hilarious.
Thanks to John T. Lewis for letting us know this sad news.