The Pleasanton community -- and the music world at large -- is mourning the loss of performer, composer and synthesizer pioneer Don Lewis, who died on Sunday surrounded by family following a brief illness. He was 81.
I had the chance to meet Lewis and his wife Julie on multiple occasions, all in professional settings, most notably when he received the Weekly's Tri-Valley Hero Arts and Culture Award in 2016. I also heard him play the piano briefly several times, as a guest at Rotary Club of Pleasanton luncheons.
Lewis' passion and creativity shined through every time I heard him perform or read him reflecting on his career at various times in the Weekly over the years. Even now, writing this obituary column, I'm uplifted listening to Lewis' 2019 album "Amazing Voyage" and combing over our archive articles, each one featuring picture after picture with his beaming smile.
That's the Don Lewis so many in Pleasanton knew.
But as much as he is remembered for his impact on his hometown of more than four decades, Lewis' story is also etched into music history, and so representative of modern American history.
Raised in Ohio in the 1940s and '50s, Lewis told the Weekly he was first drawn to music as a youngster watching the organ player at church.
His life journey took him to the Tuskegee Institute (and its famed Tuskegee Choir), and then into the U.S. Air Force in 1961 for a four-year tour as a weapons specialist in Roswell, N.M.
After his military service, he found music professionally first in Denver and then upon moving to Los Angeles and later the Bay Area. In the 1970s, he toured with the Beach Boys, performed with symphony orchestras and in nightclubs and worked in studio with the likes of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.
During this time, he also became drawn to the synthesizer and the notion of developing a way to streamline this instrumental process.
"(The invention) came out of necessity from hauling around all these individual instruments that I could not get complete access to play all the time," Lewis told us in 2016.
Lewis spent from 1974 to 1977 working on his Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO), a synthesizer system that became the inspiration for the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) in the 1980s.
He played the LEO often in San Francisco, but by the early '80s as his popularity grew, he found himself the target of an unexpected enemy -- Musicians Union Local 6, who deemed Lewis' pioneering of synthesizer technology threatened to put individual instrumentalists out of work. They picketed his performances at the time, forcing Lewis to pull back from live shows for a while.
That tale is just one of many amazing anecdotes examined in the documentary "The Ballad of Don Lewis: The Untold Story of a Synthesizer Pioneer" by producer Ned Augustenborg. The film was finished and released online two years ago and is scheduled to make its national broadcast debut on PBS in February.
The documentary shares so much about Lewis and his story, which locally includes years of mentoring students in our area through his "Young Expressions" program and "Say YES to Music!" assembly performances.
But if you want to really feel his musical impact, stream "Amazing Voyage", which is comprised of synthesized versions of seven songs with deep meanings in African American history and Lewis' own life.
"The songs are sequenced from those sung by Negro slaves in the Old South to tunes of reformation, rehabilitation and reconciliation that our country and the world needs right now," Lewis told the Weekly upon the album's release.
"The last song ('We'll Understand It Better By and By') lets us know that someday we'll understand by and by when we come to an understanding of why and what was done and what's going on today and how we can change."
A message still very relevant today. Rest in peace, Don Lewis.
Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh is the editorial director for the Embarcadero Media East Bay Division. His "What a Week" column publishes on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.