Best known as the bassist for the Steve Miller Band, Kenny Lee Lewis has toured as a guitarist, bassist and vocalist, writing and producing songs for almost 40 years. Working extensively as a studio musician with everyone from Bonnie Raitt, Peter Frampton, Boz Scaggs, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, and others, Lewis continues trying new things within and outside of his music. Latest ventures include his YouTube channel for fans and aspiring guitarists, online guitar school, and debut sci-fi fantasy novel, Skeleton Dolls: Children of the Tower.
The son of an avid jazz fan, Lewis was raised on big band records––something he credits with influencing his musical style and ability to swing. Teaching himself strumming and chord basics on the ukulele at age seven, it was stumbling across a band rehearsal in the sixth grade that changed his trajectory. “I'd never been that close to anybody my age that had a band that had instruments that were playing,” shared Lewis. Psychedelia and flower-power had spread to Sacramento as the sounds of the Beatles and The Beach Boys were replaced by The Kinks and the Yardbirds. “It was all new to me because I came from northern Sacramento and we were just typical American jocks,” confessed Lewis. Forming a band alongside a songwriter at school and co-writing together in Lewis’ bedroom, Lewis started on electric guitar, with John Perry becoming their drummer (Perry’s siblings were established industry insiders in L.A., one later encouraging Lewis toward studio work). Becoming more politically and socially active with his writing, Lewis was playing guitar professionally by age 15, touring by age 17.
Lewis’ original songwriting process involved lyrics first, looking at the style of the band he was playing (or hired) in afterwards. Originals began this way since he was typically writing about jilted love, but after meeting his wife, Diane Steinberg-Lewis (who hired him as her bassist), he began writing love letters that she later turned into lyrics. Once he had a recording studio, Lewis often created the music with a simple analog drum machine beat, adding onto it to get a groove. Hearing rhythms inside the lead tones, he listens for dominant notes that will influence the vocals, grabbing onto those melodies for a theme. Lyrics are then written to support the track––the lyrics servicing the music. Lewis says that it is important that the lyrics and music match, adding, ”They have to be a marriage, otherwise they conflict.”
Revealing that the most challenging part of being any type of writer is that you have to have private time and shut everyone else out, Lewis says that, “Your friends and family have to know they need to leave you alone. It’s really important if you’re going to be successful.” He advises songwriters to:
1. Keep a notebook and write things down while you are still emotionally charged about something in your life––uncensored––filing it thematically so that you can reference it later (Miller wrote lyrics to “Abracadabra” on a napkin in a ski lodge in 20 minutes),
2.Co-write as much as possible to bounce creative ideas and build your network (very few people can sit alone and write music and Lewis’ greatest successes have come from co-writing––including Abracadabra and the Pump Up The Volume soundtrack); and
3.Subscribe to the hot lead sheets to see what is needed by artists and producers.
Proudest of being able to put a band together and perform, Lewis feels that his talent is not really his, but rather something to share with the listener, explaining, “It's about me getting a gift - and a reasonable exchange for that is to share it and bring joy to people.”
As well as ongoing studio work, Lewis continues to perform live shows with Steve Miller, Barflyz (his project with wife), Hang Dynasty, and Cuban supergroup, Supernova (with Scott Martin of War). He was part of last month’s 9/11 20th Anniversary “Never Forget Concert” Fundraiser and has an EP of original material currently in the works.