“The Ballad of Don Lewis” is an independently produced documentary about a pioneering multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and electronic engineer who utilized his genius to design and create sounds that have shaped the world’s musical landscape.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Don Lewis gained iconic status throughout the San Francisco live music scene while performing with a revolutionary instrument of his own design – LEO (Live Electronic Orchestra)… an innovative cohesion of synthesizers and sound modules which proved to be a decade ahead of its time.
In addition to performing, Don worked as a sound designer/musician for the likes of Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and the Beach Boys. But while his popularity continued to grow, the Musicians Union publicly protested his performances - claiming that Don Lewis was a threat to the future of the Musicians Union because of the technology he so passionately embraced and developed; bringing an end to his career and the instrument he was so inextricably tied to.
In order to support his family, Don concentrated on an alternative career path, utilizing his skills as a concert artist and voicing programmer for Yamaha and Roland: eventually contributing to the success of such groundbreaking music products as the Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
Twenty years after Lewis left the limelight, and placed LEO in storage, the two would be reunited and recognized for their historical contributions by “The Museum of Making Music” in Carlsbad, CA – now home to LEO.
“The Ballad of Don Lewis” is the story of an American pioneer as he battled technological and social challenges, while attaining creative fulfillment during music’s most exciting and inspiring era.
When I first met Don Lewis over a decade ago I had no idea that our lives would forever be intertwined by countless threads of sights and sounds... film elements merged together in the telling of this man’s tragic yet inspirational life story.
Tragedy and inspiration are not commonly combined to describe anything, but when recalling the story of Don Lewis, it applies.
We were first introduced at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, CA.; a magical place where Don was scheduled to perform with his unique combination of vintage synthesizers known as the Live Electronic Orchestra (more lovingly referred to as LEO). I say unique in the truest sense of the word, since this creation of Don’s is the only LEO in existence and he’s likely the only musician in the world possessing the unique talents and disciplines needed to play it. Also, making him the only person qualified to explain it. Thus, Don Lewis became my duly designated LEO tour guide.
His thorough explanation of LEO covered from bow to stern... I resort to a nautical reference since the immensity of his creation seemed closer to an aircraft carrier than any kind of humanly acceptable musical instrument. Strategically piled on one another were sound modules, keyboards and rhythm units, buttons and switches; a parade of electronic instruments dawning such familiar labels as Roland, ARP, Hammond and ACE Tone. But what? NO MOOG? This requires an explanation! Don complied by saying, “I wanted a MOOG but it just wasn’t in my price range at the time.” But interestingly enough, it was Bob Moog who provided Don with his initial exposure to the synthesizer in the form of Walter Carlos’s groundbreaking album, “Switched On Bach.” A discovery that would alter and eventually define Don’s life and career.
After the LEO Tour it was time for a sit-down interview with Don Lewis; a process that is always wrought with speculation. The filmmaker/interviewer is always hoping for a subject that can articulate and annunciate. This may sound obvious but for someone like me (who has interviewed well over a thousand people for news, sports and documentary) this is not a luxury I take for granted. Swirling through my head are differing strategies I may need to employ based on Don’s ability, or inability to be interviewed.
Fortunately, after the first couple of questions I realized I had the perfect subject for the subject. This is when pressure of a different kind takes over... when my brain tells me, “Don’t blow it”. Looking down at the TV monitor next to my chair I could see that Don seamlessly fell into the enviable category of “telegenic” – the camera loved him. In fact, Don seemed to love the Camera as well. Really, to this day I don’t know who has more love for the other; the Camera for Don or Don for the Camera.
But in the end that’s not important.
What is important is that this critical relationship between subject and camera carries a heavy responsibility in supporting the most authentic source of story telling that filmmakers, and ultimately viewers, have to choose from – the first person. So after all the interviews I’ve conducted with Don in the making of this film, I guess I could say, “Don is my favorite First Person.”
So be careful! Because after your viewing of “The Ballad of Don Lewis” he just may become your favorite “First Person” too.
Not to mention the fact that he’s a helluva Cool Cat to hang around with!