Don Lewis

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Don Lewis is a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and electronic engineer[1][2][3][4][5] who created an instrument Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO) which integrated multiple instruments under a controller system predating MIDI controller by 10 years.[6][7][8]

Don Lewis standing by his LEO (Live Electronic Orchestra)


Don Lewis grew up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1940s and 50s.[6][7] Lewis has stated that his interest in music began as a child after watching an organist perform at his church.[6]

Lewis later majored in Electronics Engineering at the former Tuskegee Institute.[6] While there, he also sang with the Tuskegee Chorus and played music at rallies led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[6]

In 1961, Lewis enlisted in the US Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist and later stationed for four years in Roswell, New Mexico.[6][7] After his time in the Air Force, Lewis relocated to Denver, Colorado, where he worked as an engineering technician, choir director, and nightclub musician.[6] While there, he was commissioned to write three symphonic works by the Denver Symphony Orchestra.[6] Lewis later resigned his job as an engineering technician in Denver to become a full-time musician.[6]

He later studied singing with legendary vocal coach Judy Davis.[3]


After moving to Los Angeles, Lewis has worked with a number of celebrity musicians and producers, including Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendez, and Michael Jackson.[6][7] He also opened for the Beach Boys during their 1974 tour.[6][9] Lewis performed at the 1975 and 1976 Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall.[9]

Later he moved to San Francisco and performed there in the late 70's and early 80's.[3][4][7][8]

He scored for shows such as Rainbows End and Were You There for PBS, among others.[6]

Lewis has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and been a guest lecturer at Stanford University and San Jose State University.[9]

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.[6][9]

LEO and Roland TR-808[edit]

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.[1][6][7][8] 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.[1][2][5][6][8] As of 2018, LEO is housed in NAMM's Museum of Making Music located in Carlsbad, California.[8]

The various instruments of LEO include

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.[2][7] He also contributed to the rise in popularity of other synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7.[2]

In the 1980s, the Musicians Union claimed Lewis's use of technology was a threat to musicians and they began protesting his performances as a result.[2]


Lewis has been interviewed extensively for a forthcoming documentary about his life and career, The Ballad of Don Lewis: The Untold Story of a Synthesizer Pioneer..[6][7][9]

Personal life[edit]

Lewis has resided in Pleasanton, California, for 35 years.[3] He lives with his wife, Julie.[6] He has five adult children.[6]


In 2016, Lewis won the 2016 Alameda County Arts Leadership award.[9]

He also won the 2016 Tri-Valley Heroes Arts and Culture award.[6][10]


  1. ^ a b c "Don Lewis". Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  2. ^ a b c d e "New Documentary, 'The Ballad of Don Lewis'". Synthtopia. 2018-05-16. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  3. ^ a b c d Elwood, Philip (February 11, 1988). "Synthesizer ace a dazzling player". San Francisco Examiner.
  4. ^ a b Elwood, Philip (May 7, 1982). "A magical night with an electronic magician". San Francisco Examiner.
  5. ^ a b Vail, Mark (July 2001). "LEO, the Live Electronic Orchestra". Keyboard Magazine.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Reis, Julia. "Tri-Valley Hero: Don Lewis, impacting music and lives". Pleasanton Weekly. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Wolbe, Trent. "How the 808 drum machine got its cymbal, and other tales from music's geeky underbelly". The Verge. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  8. ^ a b c d e Schwartz, Dave. "NAMM 2013 in DaBelly Magazine". DeBelly. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Bing, Jeb. "Pleasanton's Don Lewis wins Alameda County Arts Leadership award". Pleasanton Weekly. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  10. ^ "Announcing our 2016 Tri-Valley Heroes". Danville SanRamon. Retrieved 2018-10-10.