Tribute: Big Joe Lewis

A Tribute to Big Joe Lewis

Written by Henry Boyce Conway Twitty Its Only Make Believe video:

Joe Lewis was born in the Pennington Community in South Jackson County on January 4, 1937. He was raised in a home by two generations of musicians before him. His father and grandfather both played guitar and other instruments in local bands at church socials, high school dances and holiday picnics. Without a doubt his musical instruction began at an early age. By the time he was thirteen, he was a member of an organized musical group who were dressed in Western outfits and featured at local Rural Electrical Association concerts put on for free in the Jackson County area. Well accomplished in his playing ability by the age of eighteen, he was a member of the Newport High School “N” Club band which also featured Phil Hout, Ben Brownstein, and Billy Compton. He graduated from Newport High School in 1957. By then he was also a professional musician as a member of Sonny Burgess’ hot and coming band, the Moonlighters, and played on the same stage as Elvis Presley at the Silver Moon and Bob King’s Club in the infancy of Presley’s career. By 1956, Burgess and his bandmates decided to rename their outfit. They wanted a more catchy moniker and Joe Lewis proposed “The Pacers” after the airplane model he was so fond of as a pilot. The name stuck and became legend as the band gained popularity throughout the Mid-South.

When Presley toured through Jackson County in 1955 before becoming an international superstar, every local musician took notice. It didn’t take long for Sonny Burgess to take his original Pacer lineup, including Joe Lewis (guitar), Kern Kennedy (piano), Jack Nance (trumpet), Johnny Ray Hubbard (slap bass) and Russ Smith (drums) to Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis. They were trying to catch the lightning Elvis sparked with his combination of Country and Rythym ‘n’ Blues which would eventually become known to the world as Rock and Roll.

The Pacers scored a big hit on the Sun Label in 1956 with “Red Headed Woman” backed with “We Wanna Boogie”. Hundreds of local fans turned out not only for their shows at the Jackson County venues, but followed them religiously throughout Arkansas to join the fun in towns from Helena to Magnolia to Fayetteville. The band was widely known for their wild stage antics which included human pyramids and the famous “Bug Dance” wherein each musician would toss an imaginary bug on each other in a writhing display of musical showmanship. The “bug” would then be tossed into the crowd and soon the whole dance floor would be shaking. Lewis was the base of the pyramid and the tallest bug dancer on the stage.

On the way home from one of the Pacer tours through Mississippi, the band met a man on the Helena Ferry who had a lot in common with them. He had a look and a voice that would soon appeal to millions of music lovers worldwide. He was a Rock and Roller who at the time was named Harold Jenkins. Jenkins recruited both Lewis and fellow Pacer Jack Nance to join his band which for a brief period was known as “The Lonely Blue Boys”. He would soon adopt a new stage name as Conway Twitty and eventually focus his efforts on recording country music. In the years that followed the transition would make them international stars.

Along with changing his own name Jenkins affectionately renamed his new band “The Twitty Birds” after his love for the popular Warner Brothers cartoon character. The new band took off to Canada to take American rock and roll to fans far from Arkansas, and by the time they came back they had scored a number one hit with the help of Nance who collaborated with Twitty to pen “It’s Only Make Believe”. Phenomenal success in the music business and numerous industry awards would follow Twitty and Lewis for years afterward.

On April 15,1976, Joe Lewis’ career came to a premature end. A tragic automobile accident took him off the popular public stage he had been so fortunate to play on for over twenty years. A credit to his personality and lovable nature was evidenced by the host of Superstars who attended his funeral in Newport including Twitty, Loretta Lynn and Jerry Lee Lewis. His tombstone at Walnut Grove Cemetery still towers under the shade of an oak tree, just as his stature as a man and ability as a musician towered in the music industry as a true product of Jackson County’s Rock and Roll history.

The Depot Days Committee will present a video tribute on Saturday, September 29, 2012, on the main stage to memorialize the life and contributions to the music world made by Big Joe Lewis.

For more information about the festival, call 870-523-3618.