Don Lewis is a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and electronic engineer. He created an instrument called the Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO), which integrated multiple instruments under a controller system and predated the MIDI controller by 10 years.
Lewis later majored in Electronics Engineering at the former Tuskegee Institute. While there, he also sang with the Tuskegee Chorus and played music at rallies led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1961, Lewis enlisted in the US Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist and later stationed for four years in Roswell, New Mexico. After his time in the Air Force, Lewis relocated to Denver, Colorado, where he worked as an engineering technician, choir director, and nightclub musician. While there, he was commissioned to write three symphonic works by the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Lewis later resigned his job as an engineering technician in Denver to become a full-time musician.
He later studied singing with legendary vocal coach Judy Davis.
After moving to Los Angeles, Lewis has worked with a number of celebrity musicians and producers, including Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendez, and Michael Jackson. He also opened for the Beach Boys during their 1974 tour. Lewis performed at the 1975 and 1976 Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall.
He scored for shows such as Rainbows End and Were You There for PBS, among others.
Lewis has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and been a guest lecturer at Stanford University and San Jose State University.
He also started two programs to encourage kids' interest in music and the arts: Young Expressions, a mentorship program for student artists around Pleasanton, California, and Say "Yes" to Music!, wherein Lewis performs at school assemblies.
LEO and Roland TR-808
Lewis is most famous for having created an early integrated sound controller for analog synthesizers, which he named Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO), 10 years prior to MIDI. Lewis designed LEO in 1974 and completed it in 1977 by linking various synthesizers to work together in live performance, limited at the time to mostly studio production. As of 2018, LEO is housed in NAMM's Museum of Making Music located in Carlsbad, California.
The various instruments of LEO include
- Hammond Concorde
- (4) Oberheim Expander Module (SEM)
- ARP Pro-soloist
- (2) ARP 2600's
- Roland Jupiter 4
- Roland Promars
- Roland Space Echo
- Roland Digital Chorus
- Roland VP-330 vocoder
- Roland TR-808
- Hammond X-66 pedestal
- Pascetta Polyphonic Keyboard
- Roland 8 channel mixer
For over 10 years, Lewis collaborated with Ikutaro Kakehashi on rhythm units including the FR-7L, CR-68, CR-78 and the Roland TR-808, a drum machine that allowed musicians to program and create their own drum beats. He also contributed to the rise in popularity of other synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7.
A feature length documentary film, THE BALLAD OF DON LEWIS: The Untold Story of a Synthesizer Pioneer, produced and directed by multi-EMMY Award winner, Ned Augustenborg was released in March 11, 2020. The film covers Lewis's life, career, relationships, and his struggles with systemic racism; Lewis, in the 1980's was unjustifiably labeled as a "National Enemy" of the Musicians Union partly due to institutional fears regarding the technological advancements that Lewis so deeply embraced. THE BALLAD OF DON LEWIS delves deeply into the early history of Electronic Music; clearly explaining the commerce, politics and creative influences surrounding the synthesizers that Lewis influenced through programming, voicing and design, while working with Hammond, Roland and Yamaha. Included are interviews with Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Ikutaro Kakehasi, Dr. John Chowning, Alan Kay and other luminaries within the music industry. The film has been released by BRI Releasing to Cable TV Households domestically through OnDemand and available on DVD through AMAZON and other distributors. AMAZON has elevated the film to "AMAZON CHOICE" stature and has been reviewed as "true genius", "inspirational", "could not take my eyes off the screen", "a fascinating story about a remarkable man", "a must see for anyone who loves music".
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- "New Documentary, 'The Ballad of Don Lewis'". Synthtopia. 2018-05-16. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
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- Elwood, Philip (May 7, 1982). "A magical night with an electronic magician". San Francisco Examiner.
- Vail, Mark (July 2001). "LEO, the Live Electronic Orchestra". Keyboard Magazine.
- Reis, Julia. "Tri-Valley Hero: Don Lewis, impacting music and lives". Pleasanton Weekly. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
- Wolbe, Trent. "How the 808 drum machine got its cymbal, and other tales from music's geeky underbelly". The Verge. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
- Schwartz, Dave. "NAMM 2013 in DaBelly Magazine". DeBelly. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
- Bing, Jeb. "Pleasanton's Don Lewis wins Alameda County Arts Leadership award". Pleasanton Weekly. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
- "Announcing our 2016 Tri-Valley Heroes". Danville SanRamon. Retrieved 2018-10-10.