Joe Lewis was born in the Pennington Community in South Jackson County Jan. 4, 1937. He was raised in a home by two generations of musicians before him.
His father and grandfather both played guitar and other instruments in local bands at Church Socials, High School dances and Holiday picnics.
Without a doubt his musical instruction began at an early age. By the time he was 13, he was a member of an organized musical group who wore Western outfits and were featured at local Rural Electrical Association concerts put on for free in the Jackson County area.
Well accomplished in his playing ability by the age of 18, he was a member of the Newport High School "N" Club band which also featured Phil Hout, Ben Brownstein and Billy Compton.
He graduated from Newport High School in 1957. By then he had already become a professional musician as a member of Sonny Burgess' hot and coming band, the Moonlighters, and played on the same stage as Elvis Presley at the Silver Moon and Bob King's Club in the infancy of Presley's career.
By 1956, Burgess and his bandmates decided to rename their outfit. They wanted a more catchy moniker and Lewis proposed "The Pacers" after the
airplane model he was so fond of as a pilot. The name stuck and became
legend as the band gained popularity throughout the Mid-South.
When Presley toured through Jackson County in 1955 before becoming an
international superstar, every local musician took notice. It didn't take
long for Sonny Burgess to take his original Pacer lineup, including Joe
Lewis (guitar), Kern Kennedy (piano), Jack Nance (trumpet), Johnny Ray
Hubbard (slap bass), and Russ Smith (drums) to Sam Phillips' Sun Studio in
Memphis. They were trying to catch the lightning Elvis sparked with his
combination of Country and Rhythm n' Blues which would eventually become
known to the world as Rock and Roll.
The Pacers scored a big hit on the Sun Label in 1956 with "Red Headed Woman"
backed with "We Wanna Boogie". Hundreds of local fans turned out not only
for their shows at the Jackson County venues, but followed them religiously
throughout Arkansas to join the fun in towns from Helena to Monticello to
Fayetteville, The band was widely known for their wild stage antics which
included human pyramids and the famous "Bud Dance" wherein each musician
would toss an imaginary bug on each other in a writhing display of musical
showmanship. The "bug" would then be tossed into the crowd and soon the
whole dance floor would be shaking. Lewis was the base of the pyramid and
the tallest bug dancer on the stage.
On the way home from one of the Pacer tours through Mississippi, the band
met a man on the Helena Ferry who had a lot in common with them. he had a
look and a voice that would soon appeal to millions of music lovers
worldwide. His was a rock and roller at the time named Harold Jenkins. He
would soon adopt a new stage name as Conway Twitty and become an
international Country icon.
Twitty recruited Lewis and Pacer trumpeter Jack Nance to join his band.
Jenkins affectionately named his new unit " The Twitty Birds" after his love
for the popular Warner Brothers cartoon character. The band took off to
Canada to take American rock and roll to fans far from Arkansas, and by the
time they came back they had scored a number one hit with the help of Nance
who collaborated with Twitty to pen "It's Only Make Believe". Country
superstardom and numerous awards would follow Twitty and Lewis for years
On April 15th, 1976 Joe Lewis's career came to a premature end. A tragic
automobile accident took him off the stage he had been so fortunate to play
on. A credit to his personality and lovable nature was evidenced by the host
of Superstars and friends who attended his funeral in Newport included
Twitty, Loretta Lynn, and Jerry Lee Lewis. his tombstone at Walnut Grove
Cemetery still towers under the shade of an oak tree, just as his stature as
a man towered in the music industry as a true product of Jackson County's
Rock and Roll history.
The Depot Days Committee will present a video tribute on Saturday, September
29th, on Front Street in Newport to memorialize the life and contributions
to the music world made by Big Joe Lewis. For more information about the
festival call 870-523-3618 or go to www.depotdays.org.