KEARNEY — In the early 1960s, Gary Lewis’ mother, singer Patti Palmer, helped her son purchase equipment for his band without telling his dad.
She thought Gary’s father, the world famous comedian Jerry Lewis, might not approve of his son playing rock ‘n’ roll.
Gary began his interest in music at an early age. World class drummer and band leader Buddy Rich gave him lessons.
“I was so young,” Gary said. “I originally met him when I was 5. For seven years I didn’t know who he was. I thought he was just a friend of my dad’s because he came over all the time.”
Those lessons continued.
“Every time he came over, he said, ‘Hey, kid, let’s go out to the drums and let me show you some stuff,’” Gary recalled. “And then when I was about 12, I realized, hey, this is Buddy Rich, my God. Seven years of lessons from Buddy Rich. He was wonderful.”
The entertainment world knew Rich for his impatience and arrogance — both in music and life.
“I never wondered if he was being nice to me or not,” Gary said. “He was just showing me some stuff on the drums, but I know he wasn’t ever very nice to anybody. My dad used to call him Mr. Humble.”
Gary and his band found success in the mid-1960s with hits such as “This Diamond Ring” and “Everybody Loves a Clown.” Gary Lewis and the Playboys will perform at 8 p.m. July 18 at the Merryman Performing Arts Center as part of Cruise Nite. Tickets are $26-$36.
Growing with famous performers for parents both helped and hindered Gary.
“I guess you can say it was an advantage in my younger years,” he said. “We went to the best schools and we didn’t have to want for anything. But on the other hand, it didn’t set me up for life as it really is. Real life is not having everything you want all the time. When I got drafted and went into the Army, that’s when I grew up. Those guys were not going to take any sense of privilege or anything like that.”
Gary knew that instantly.
“I just wanted to be one of the guys,” he said. “The growing up process was weird because when I got out of the service, my kind of music changed radically to the kind of music like Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin, much harder rock. There was no more market for me and my kind of music.”
Gary Lewis and the Playboys received national notice after performing on the Ed Sullivan Show in January 1965. Three months later the group had sold a million copies of “This Diamond Ring.” They went on to have eight gold singles.
By 1972, Gary got out of the music business.
“I didn’t want to play hard rock just for the sake of staying in the business,” he said. “I got out of it and bought a music store in Los Angeles. For the next 12 years, I just sold guitars and drums and just gave lessons on both. And that’s when I learned about life and what it really is. It was very hard for me, to come out of a rich, wealthy family, to have all these hits myself in my first outing of a job.”
When that stopped, Gary found himself with no money and having to deal with people on a street level.
“But I don’t condemn it at all,” he said. “I’m thankful for it because it got me to where I am today. I have God in my life. It took me a long time to get there, but I got there. I’m thankful for every single day and every blessing he’s given me, and that’s just the way it is. I can take everything he’s thrown at me.”
Audiences who come to see Gary Lewis and the Playboys seem very familiar to the musician.
“We’re still playing to the same people we played to in the 60s, but now they’re bringing their kids and their grand kids,” he said. “I’m playing to three generations of people because the word of mouth has been handed down. Grandma and grandpa play my tunes at home. And that’s beautiful for me. I thought my career would last maybe three years — and now it’s been 55 years.”