Jerry's Kid: the Story of Gary Lewis & the Playboys

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Gary Harold Lee Levitch, the eldest son of comedian Jerry Lewis, was born on July 31, 1946. Gary was supposed to have been named “Cary,” because of his mother's great love of movie actor Cary Grant, but the hospital he was delivered in made a clerical error and he was to be “Gary" forevermore.

Being the son of a hugely popular comedian of the 1950's and '60's, Gary grew up with a love of show business and made appearances in both TV shows and at least one movie featuring his father.
In 1960, when Gary was 14, his dad gave him a drum set for his birthday. In 1964, after the Beatles hit America, along with millions of other teenage boys, Gary formed a group.

One day, two of the group members showed up late for rehearsals and Gary sarcastically asked them, “Where have you playboys been?" Everyone immediately loved the name and thus, “The Playboys" were officially christened.

Soon, the five-man band got signed to play a string of gigs at Disneyland (at the time, no one realized the Jerry Lewis connection, and the band went by the name “Gary and the Playboys”). They were very successful and drew consistently big, enthusiastic crowds. All of this was unknown to father Jerry. Gary and the band would rehearse secretly in their home, but only when Jerry was out.

Gary and the boys were soon spotted by a record producer named Snuff Garrett. Garrett liked what he heard, with one exception: another member of the band, guitarist Dave Walker, was singing lead on most of the vocals, with Gary in the background playing drums.

Garrett came upon the revolutionary idea of having a celebrity's kid singing lead in a rock band and Gary was given a "promotion,” instantly becoming the band's resident Mick Jagger. It doesn't take much imagination to conceive how Dave Walker must have felt at this decision.

Garrett set up an actual recording session for the still-fledgling group. This session was financed by Jerry's wife, Patti Lewis. Patti warned Gary not to say a word about the session to his dad. “Hey, if this venture fails, I gotta come up with some kind of excuse on where the money went, so don't tell your father about it,” she cautioned her son.

At that secret session, Gary and the Playboys recorded a song called “This Diamond Ring,” a song that had already been offered and rejected by singer Bobby Vee.

(YouTube link)

According to producer Garrett, he recorded Gary's lead voice on the song, overdubbed it, and added in another singer's (Ron Hicklin) voice to the mix. Feeling the record "needed professional musicians,” Garret claims he also brought in session musicians to replace the band, as he needed to "put on solos or some kind of overdubbing.” But Gary disagrees with this memory, claiming the band played on all their records, with just a few minor touches added by session musicians.

Soon after it's release, “This Diamond Ring" began racing up the charts and it had become time for Gary to tell father Jerry about his secret career as a lead singer in a band. According to Gary, his pop was pleased as punch and told him, “Oh man. that's great. I don't care what you do as far as a career, as long as you love it with all your heart and give it 100%. I only ask one thing: don't grow your hair like those damn Beatles!" Gary never did.

Hair notwithstanding, Gary did like the Beatles style and the Playboys adopted their velvet-collar jackets and high boots look. But despite their name, the Playboys kept a clean-cut, wholesome image, rejecting the booze and drugs that were growing so popular in their field.

As “This Diamond Ring" shot up the charts (eventually hitting the coveted #1 spot), the next step became the hype. Jerry pulled a few strings and got the boys booked on The Ed Sullivan Show, then the most popular variety show in america.

Host Ed Sullivan had a firm policy on his beloved show that all singers or groups must actually sing their songs live during their appearances. According to Snuff Garrett, although this was Sullivan's policy, when Gary and the boys appeared, it was the first time in the history of Ed's show that an act did lip-sync.

Gary Lewis and the Playboys soon joined their first tour, Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, featuring Gene pitney, Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs, Brian Hyland and Bobby Goldboro. The boys played to screaming fans all over America and a second member of the Lewis family had now officially become a show business celebrity/star.

During this heady 1965-66 period, the hit records poured down like manna from heaven: after “This Diamond Ring" hit #1 came “Count Me In" (#2), “Save Your Heart for Me" (#2), “She's Just My Style" (#3), “Everybody Loves a Clown" (#4), “Sure Gonna Miss Her" (#9) and “Green Grass" (#8). Gary Lewis and the Playboys became the first and only group of the 1960's to have their first seven releases all reach the top ten on Billboard's "hot 100" charts.

In 1965, Gary Lewis was voted Male Vocalist of the Year by CashBox magazine, beating out Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. The demand for “This Diamond Ring" was so rabid, the pressing plant had to stay open 24 hours a day to meet it. Gary and the Playboys made more appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and also popped up on other popular shows of the time, including a memorable appearance with father Jerry on Hullabaloo.

But like all of us in this seemingly pitiless universe, Gary Lewis was soon to get his undeserved comeuppance. On January 1, 1967, right after his final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Gary received his draft notice.

Basing his decision on Elvis Presley, Gary decided to serve (Jerry could easily have pulled some strings and wangled a deferment). Gary went in for basic training and was stationed in Korea.

Because he loved music so much, Gary spent the time on his leave in a recording studio and recorded his final top ten song during this period, “Sealed with a Kiss" (#9). But like countless other Vietnam era vets, Gary was severely shaken by his service.

Sadly, when he returned home to the States, two tragedies occurred. First, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and scores of others had taken over the rock scene, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys seemed as relevant to the times as a 1920 phone book. Second, and far worse, Gary had developed a severe heroin addiction that caused himself, his family, and his father much anguish and grief.

After a tough struggle, Gary Lewis finally got his act together. Still loving the music world, he released a few semi-successful "party songs.” He had some other marginally successful records and started touring again with several new incarnations of Gary Lewis and the Playboys.” Gary and his band also made routine appearances on his dad's perennial Jerry Lewis Telethon every Labor Day.

The final tally for Gary Lewis and the Playboys: 8 gold singles, 17 top 40 hits, 4 gold albums, and 45 million total records sold. Not too shabby, and a recording career any musician or singer would be proud of.

As of 2012, according to Gary's website, Gary Lewis and the Playboys still have a handful of concert dates scheduled around the country.

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