Possessor of arguably the biggest hit of the 1960’s was a singer who may have had little success before or after it, but enjoyed a long career after a rough upbringing, outlasting most of his contemporaries and singing into his mid-eighties.

Lewis was born in Indianapolis in 1925 – though he had eight years shaved off his age most of his career – and grew up in an orphanage with poor eyesight, though he learned the piano by the time he was six. At 12 he was finally adopted and moved to Detroit but two years later he was more or less on his own, working in and around music, including as a disc jockey.

In 1952 he and writer-arranger came up with “Mumbles Blues” which drew the attention of Chess Records and became his first single, only to see it immediately covered by fellow Detroit staple Paul Bascomb on Mercury, the two competing singles effectively canceling each other out.

In spite of the promising start he didn’t get another chance to record for a few years when that same song began attracting other artists to cut their own versions. Ironically it was Mercury which picked up Lewis’s own remake made for Spotlight Records in 1956 and subsequently gave him another release, neither one stirring any interest.

But it did land him a contract with Roulette Records before the Fifties were over, yet it’d be his early sixties run after he befriended fellow Detroit star Jackie Wilson and his unscrupulous manager Nat Tarnopol who convinced him to try his luck in New York City.

Though he had to knock on doors to ask for audition, he lucked out at tiny Beltone Records when the former lead singer of the vocal group The Fireflies, Ritchie Adams, gave him “Tossin’ & Turnin” which became the biggest hit of 1961 spending seven weeks atop the Pop Charts and ten at #1 on the R&B Charts, selling over three million copies in the process.

That was enough to get his follow-up “One Track Mind” into the Top Ten as well, but from there it was a losing battle to match that massive hit and as a result he was quickly convinced to cut an ill-advised sequel which inched into the lower rungs of the charts as his final of four entries in the course of one magical year.

The label soon folded and while he managed to get another contract with ABC-Paramount on the basis of his name recognition, his success was clearly treated as a fluke by the industry rather than the culmination of a decade of hard work and talent.

Yet while he was denied the opportunity to continue his career as an active artist, that one massive hit gave him a long afterlife when it was used memorably in the 1978 hit movie Animal House. Lewis was able to tour on its enduring popularity until nearly completely blind in his mid-80’s.

In April 2020 Lewis passed away in New Jersey, his home for forty years, at the age of 95. He may not have had a deep catalog, but one of those songs ensured he had a long career and that he wouldn’t soon be forgotten.
BOBBY LEWIS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed on Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Chess 1518; August, 1952)
A very influential record, though inadvertently troubling for what it’s attempting to find humor in, it features a confident vocal by Lewis and a strong arrangement by Leroy Kirkland which gives it enough power to overcome any ethical objections to its content. (5)

(Chess 1518; August, 1952)
Not a bad performance but one which can’t really decide whether it wants to head in a more bluesy direction or stick to rock. Lewis chooses the latter with his vocal while Leroy Kirkland’s guitar led arrangement leans towards the former making this too indecisive to work. (3)