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Still rocking; '60s music star Gary Lewis balances simple life, touring

It's a long way from Hollywood to Honeoye Falls, as Gary Lewis would be the first to tell you.

Many years ago, Lewis enjoyed what many would call a charmed life in Hollywood, as the son of comedy icon Jerry Lewis.

At age 19, he formed a rock band, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, that sold millions of records in the 1960s, had 17 Top 40 hits and even played six times on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

For about two years, he and his band experienced some of the pop star madness that the Beatles portrayed in their "A Hard Day's Night" movie.

"We'd finish a show, and we'd have to run like hell to our car, with all kinds of girls chasing us," Lewis recalled. "One night, they tore a big chunk of hair out of my keyboard player's head. The poor guy was bleeding profusely. I said, 'You wanted to be a rock star, didn't you?' "

That was then. This is now.

Today, finally settled down after five marriages and decades of drug and alcohol abuse, the 65-year-old Lewis enjoys the simple life in rural Honeoye Falls. He and his wife, Donna, a Rochester native, live on an 11-acre property in Monroe County, roughly 90 minutes east of Buffalo.

"I'm happier now than I ever have been at any time since the '60s," Lewis said in a recent phone interview.

And Lewis still has some fun and makes a few bucks taking his band on the road. They play 40 to 50 gigs a year, and will perform next Friday in the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls.

"I love being up there on that stage, looking out at all the faces," Lewis said. "We'll play the first few bars of a song, and I'll see all these people smiling at each other, like, 'Hey, I remember that one!' We play the songs just as people remember them."

Starting in early 1965, the Playboys were one of the hottest acts in American pop, with hits like "This Diamond Ring," "Count Me In," "Everybody Loves A Clown" and "Sure Gonna Miss Her," all of them million sellers.

Some called them lightweight, but they were catchy, happy songs that you couldn't get out of your head. The musicians who recorded with Lewis were the best studio players of the era -- including budding rock star Leon Russell, who arranged all the music, drummer Jim Keltner and guitar slingers like Glen Campbell and the late, great Tommy Tedesco, a Niagara Falls native.

Lewis' career crashed after he was drafted into the Army in 1967. He served in Vietnam and Korea, but didn't see any combat. He said he never asked for special treatment, and he thinks he was never put on the front lines because having a pop star killed would have been bad publicity for the Vietnam War.

"I got out of the Army in 1969, and my producer told me, 'There really isn't a market for your kind of music anymore,' " Lewis said.

After that, he went into a long tailspin that included four failed marriages and long years of drinking and drugging. He said his life began to turn around in 1985, when a producer recruited him to hit the road with the Turtles and other '60s bands on the "Happy Together Tour."

Lewis has had enough gigs to make a living ever since. "We found that there really is a market now for our music, and I'm very thankful," he said. Lewis sings, plays guitar and occasionally plays drums with his band.

He's been with the former Donna Grow -- whom he met after his band played a show in Rochester -- since 1997. They married in 2001.

The one part of his life that Lewis did not want to discuss was his relationship with his famous father, now 85. They haven't spoken in three years, and Lewis said the split is painful to talk about.

"It's way too deep for me to get into right now, and it just doesn't involve me. It involves my whole family," Lewis said.




Gary Lewis and the Playboys    

WHEN: 8 p.m. next Friday    

WHERE: Bear's Den, Seneca Niagara Casino    

TICKETS: $35-$45    


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