The Last Great King Cat of Rockabilly

Willie Lewis, rockabilly icon and owner of the Rock-A-Billy Record Co. died yesterday, Oct. 17, 2014, during ablation heart surgery, he was 68 years old. He leaves behind a large family and an extensive musical legacy.

The fact that he lived this long is a bit miraculous, as he seemed to be living on borrowed time for many, many years. Bill always suffered from various health conditions. He was born with Erythroblastosis Fetalis which was a conflict with his mother’s RH negative blood and his own RH positive blood, an illness considered terminal for males (including his older brother who died from this). Bill was told he was the first male to survive the disease by a newly developed complete blood transfer procedure.

I am not sure if that blood transfer had anything to do with it, but Bill seemed wired differently than you and I. He was incredibly intelligent, very hyper-aware and very high strung. This led to a troubled youth which he eventually put behind him due to his love of his beloved wife Mary Louise Sanchez (who passed on April 14th, 2013) and his passion for record collecting. After amassing an incredible amount of rare rockabilly, doo wop, blues, soul, country and ranchera music, he decided it was time to record and release his own first record, The Rockin’ Blues, a 100 percent authentic rockabilly record and one of many highly prized releases sought by record collectors the world over. Famous for authenticity and his single-microphone-in-the-living-room recording technique, Lewis’ Rock-A-Billy Record Company became known worldwide and rockabilly bands came, not just from all over the country, but all over the world to have records released on his label. Artists included: High Noon, Go Cat Go, Ronnie Dawson, Carl Sonny Leyland , the Barnshakers, the Hal Peters Trio & the Stablemen.


(Willie Lewis and Mary Louise)

Lewis had his first heart attack after his second record came back from the pressing plant and he discovered all the copies had accidently been pressed sped-up like the Chipmunks. Damage from this initial heart attack caused an arrhythmia which induced a series of subsequent heart attacks and left Lewis technically dead for 30 minutes. The damage destroyed 65% of his heart muscle, leaving him with with a functioning portion of his heart a little larger than the size of a walnut. He didn’t expect to live much longer after that, so while in the hospital he wrote one of his best songs for Mary Louise, “I’ll Still Love You When They’re Laying Me In The Ground”. Lewis was told that if he had another heart attack, he would not survive it. Nevertheless, he continued pursuing playing and recording rockabilly music by himself and others for many years after, with the assumption that any one of these recordings could be his last.

Lewis did survive several more heart attacks over the years which led to at least two retirements from the music business. The man had two pacemakers and a defibrillator in his chest. Last year he developed pneumonia and was rushed to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s. While there, they performed an ablation surgery to burn off some of his dead heart tissue to give room to his functioning heart. Complications from the surgery left a hole in the pericardial sac surrounding the heart which then filled with liquid leading to open heart surgery. He was literally ten seconds from death. The heart medicine he was on during this hospital stay ate away at his muscle tissue, leaving him nothing but skin and bones. By the time he left the hospital for rehab he could barely lift his head. But once in rehab, he worked as hard as they had ever seen anyone to rebuild his muscle mass and miraculously within months was able to walk again and return home.

Knowing that his time was short, during this hospital and rehab stay he worked on and released four new Rock-A-Billy Record Co. records (one by him, three by other artists) and after returning home assembled 32 songs for a final CD which was released a month or two ago. He also had two more records in the works, both currently on their way to the pressing plant.

Last week Bill went into the hospital for upper-respiratory bronchitis. The lack of oxygen made his defibrillator go off numerous times. Yesterday they tried to do another ablation procedure which he did not survive.

Willie Lewis was the last true giant of rockabilly, recording more original authentic, rockabilly recordings than any other. His unique voice and character can be recognized immediately, he sounded like no other artist. His passing will sadden all and closes a historical era.
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Last Call with Willie Lewis

I had my last phone call with Willie Lewis, Oct. 15th, the night before he last went back into the hospital. He had been admitted a few days before, but demanded to be released as he felt he wasn’t getting any better. I called him at home to see how he was doing. At first he was angrily ranting about the health care system. “Tom, in the, oh, 28 hours I have been out of the hospital, I must have had 50 or 60 phone calls from various medical companies trying to sell me stuff. They’d say, this device will help you breathe, but we checked and your Medicare won’t cover it, just your Medicaid. So after Medicaid you will have to pay $390 a month out of your own pocket. We’re sending it over next Monday. I told them you can send whatever you want, but I ain’t paying for it and I will be sending it back”.

I told Lewis I wanted to change the subject as I didn’t want him getting riled up and risking heart trouble so we started talking about lighter subjects. I was sitting out front of my house on the phone and my brother-in-law came by to get a backpack from my house. I said “Hold on a second, Lewis” then asked my brother-in-law where he was going hiking. He said he was going elk hunting out west of Ft. Collins. Lewis overheard and said “Elk hunting? It’s too early, you will have to go way up there to get any elk, they don’t start traveling to lower elevation until it starts snowing”. “Lewis, have you done much hunting?” “Oh, not so much elk, though I have gotten a few, mostly deer… I once got a bear with a hand grenade.” “WHAT?” “Oh, I didn’t tell ’bout that before?” He told me that he went hunting with his friend who was a recent Vietnam vet and had smuggled some hand grenades back with him to the States. Lewis said his friend had a bunch of hand grenades and some sweaty dynamite. “Tom, you know what sweaty dynamite is? That is when the nitroglycerine starts leaking out of the dynamite. It makes the dynamite extremely dangerous. He kept that dynamite under his bed. He didn’t care, he was an extreme dude. He was a Special Forces killer in Vietnam. Would go across enemy lines at night, slash someone’s throat and come back. He had 57 confirmed kills. He was the coolest guy I ever met.”

“So we are up in the mountains and I take a couple of the grenades and start up the side of the mountain to see what I could do. As I am leaving, my friend says, “Get me a bear! I need a pelt!”. So while hiking around the mountain, I ran across a cave and I started poking around and sure enough, a bear was in there getting ready to hibernate. It saw me and came out and started rearing up and growling, so I pulled the pin on this grenade and tossed it under him.” “Was there anything left of him?” “Well, not much of the guts.” “What happened?” “Tom, I blew his fucking balls off! Then I skinned him and brought the pelt, paws and head back to camp and put them in the back of the truck. My friend didn’t believe me. I said “Go back and check for yourself, I am not bringing that stuff over here, it stinks! He did manage to make a pretty good pelt out of it.” “What happened to your friend.” “Oh, Tom, you know how it is, you lose track of people over time. Last thing I heard was that he went off to fight the feds at Wounded Knee“.
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(For those that are not familiar with Wounded Knee, you can read about it, here. This dates this bear hunting incident to before 1973.)

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This entry was posted on Saturday, October 18th, 2014 at 1:06 pm and is filed under Eulogy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “The Last Great King Cat of Rockabilly”

Sven Bergmann October 19th, 2014 at 6:29 am

Willie “King Cat” Lewis is, was and will forever be the most unique man I just can imagine.During his life he worked with numerous musicians and, with the exception of myself , they all may had more technical musical talent than Willie himself. But Willie had more rockabilly in his heart and mind than we all got together. With his lack of technical talent, but his overhelming love for his music, he created the very best, most honest, most unique downhome Rockabilly music you will ever hear. There can’t be more Rockabilly than you’ll find in every Willie Lewis song. He is a strange man with a strange fellowship. There is nothing in between a “Yes or no” a”black or white” and for sure ther is no “maybe” in his life. To know his music means to lo e or hate it. To know the person behind the music is even more extreme. If you know the ma , you’ll love him or you’ll hate him. There’s nothing in between. If Willie likes you – hewould

Sven Bergmann October 19th, 2014 at 8:17 am

Continued:

If Willie likes you – he would die for you. If not he wouldnt piss on you while you’re burning. Love him or hate him like he loves you or hates you. You “don’t have to” love the man but if you don’t love his music you have no rockabilly in your heart. If you don’t love this brutal honest man, you’ve never met him in person or you never came close to his soul.
Dear Willie, Dear Mary Lou
I’LL MISS YOU LIKE CRAZY TILL WE’LL MEET AGAIN IN OUR ROCKABILLY HEAVEN WE NAMED BopLand!!!

Charlene October 19th, 2014 at 4:51 pm

This man was and still is the best man/person iv ever met.. and I was blessed to have him for my grandpa. He has 7 great grand kids who luv him and will miss him dearly and he will never b forgotten.!!!

Luv u grandpa nw u and grandma r up there together dancing the beautiful nights away like u both love doing <3

Luv always charlene margie maleah mikey dominic Ignacio nehemiah and babi Amiyah <3

Dave Stidman October 19th, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Lewis and I were friends for over 35 years.When we first met,I learned a lot about about rockabilly music and record collecting.This was before I had Wax Trax Record Store.In all of those years we had a personal and business relationship that was always mutually friendly and respectful.We never had a conflict.I loved his music tremendously.The music in him came from a passion for the sound and a great knowledge of its origins.It is incredible how he built a successful record company from this passion .He was able to overcome many difficulties and obstacles in his life.He is truly a legend and true to his art.I will miss him very much.

Craig Maki October 20th, 2014 at 6:01 am

I agree with Sven – Willie was a most kind-hearted generous soul. Even if he didn’t “like” a body, he seemed prone to giving benefit of the doubt.

Shannon Dickey October 20th, 2014 at 2:52 pm

I sure will miss Lewis, he was a true original. So glad I had the chance to know him & his music will always bring him back to us. They truly broke the mold with Lewis. Rock In Peace!

Ricky (Wildcat Promotions) October 22nd, 2014 at 12:11 am

R.I.P Willie . It’s the a sad day for me . To bad new read one of me First Rockabilly idol died . So sad new for me ….. Howdy Sven . Wirklich n’bad new , ich bin eine absolute groBe fan von Willie seit so lange jahren . Habe mir vor einige tagen noch die neue tolle scheibe von Willie gekauft . SAD DAY ……

ray October 23rd, 2014 at 8:24 pm

One of the last REAL rockabillies. I’m gonna drink beer and play my Willie Lewis records real loud this weekend. RIP.

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