Willie Lewis

Most music fans know something about rockabilly. They at least know that Elvis and Buddy Holly recorded rockabilly early in their careers. What they might not know is that there was a more rural form of rockabilly, let’s call it down-home rockabilly, played by more obscure guys like Charlie Feathers and Jess Hooper. Compared to these down-home singers of rockabilly, Elvis and Buddy Holly almost sound like pop crooners.

What if I told you that Denver had it’s own down-home rockabilly singer, equivalent to a Feathers or a Hooper, who has been playing and recording here in town, all along? He has recorded hundreds of songs, formed his own record label and released records by artists from all over the world. Well, Willie Lewis is all this and more.


Who is Willie Lewis? Let us start by saying that Willie Lewis is a bonafide Denver hero. Lewis is an acclaimed rockabilly singer/songwriter/performer, president of Denver’s Rock-A-Billy Record Company and a world-class record collector. But most of all Lewis is a hard boiled survivor.

Willie Lewis survived a horrible childhood blood disease. He survived a rough childhood that took him in and out of orphanages and in and out of trouble which eventually landed him as a teenager in Buena Vista Correctional. He was all over Denver news when he survived an attack on his home by a PCP-crazed maniac who jumped through his window and attacked his family.

But most importantly, Willie Lewis has survived numerous heart attacks that have left him with two pacemakers, a defribilator and many, many stents. He has just recently bounced back from yet another near-fatal hospitalization and has now rebounded, remarkably. This man is simply wired differently than you and I.

Mary Louise

(This Rock-A-Billy Record Company website is dedicated to the wonderful Mary Louise, who passed away recently in 2013.)


Lewis transcended his troubled youth by focusing on his two loves, his wife Mary Louise and rockabilly music. And Willie Lewis knows rockabilly. I guarantee you, no one else knows rockabilly better. Willie Lewis should be recognized as the living, breathing, embodiment of rockabilly, personified. The choice of the name Rock-A-Billy Record Company for his label many, many decades ago, still makes complete sense today. No one deserves that label name more.

If you are a Denver resident and you are thinking “I have never heard of Willie Lewis”, this is because Lewis has no interest in commercial pop success. He knows his audience and his audience knows him. Rockabilly groups from all over the world have sought out Willie Lewis to record for his label. And aside from releases on his own label, his records have been issued throughout Europe & Japan on record labels from countries like England, France, Germany & Finland. His records are not easy to find anymore, collectors have them and they don’t seem to be letting them go.


Enough hyperbole, let’s read Willie Lewis‘ story in his own words:

Photo taken at age 3

Autobiography written by Willie Lewis:

I was born on September 27th, 1946 with a blood disease known as Erythroblastosis Fetalis, which is a long winded way of saying I had a RH incompatibility blood issue caused by a conflict with my mother’s RH negative blood and my RH positive blood. At the time I was born, it was considered terminal, however it apparently only affected male children. I had an older brother born in 1941, who died shortly after birth from the same problem. I also had a sister born in 1943 that had no problems at all, as far as blood issues were concerned. There was no serum or medical cure for the disease known to exist at that time, but I was told later that there was some German doctor who had been experimenting with the idea of a complete blood transfer, meaning they take all of the bad blood out of your body and replace it with fresh, untainted blood.

They decided to try this procedure out on me. They took all of my original blood out of my body though the femoral artery in my leg and then replaced it with fresh blood through the carotid artery in my neck. I was told that I was the very first baby to ever have this procedure done that survived it (at least here in the United States). Since that time they have developed a serum to combat the problem, should it occur. That’s why blood tests were (and I assume still are) required in the United States, before marriage. Since that time, it seems that I have led a “charmed” life to one degree or another, no matter what has befallen me through the years.

Life has been one test of survival after another and so far so good. I won’t bore you with all of the many trials and tribulations of my youth, but it seems that I always had an unusual attachment for good music from my earliest memories, excluding country & western music. For many, many years I couldn’t stand listening to ANY c/w music at all. One of my mom’s less physical punishments for causing her grief, was to make me sit on a chair facing the corner while she turned up the local c/w station here in town with the call letters KLAK. That twangy nasal noise really got under my skin! I’d rather she just pound on me a while and call it good. Little did I realize that what I considered punishment at the time was really my subconscious country & western music education. Once I was able to get past all of the “I hate these crapola tunes” issues, I had my eyes opened up to a whole new world of music. But for now, it was the other side of the music I found a lot more appealing to my “audio taste buds” as a teeny bopper.

I lived in an orphanage for many years of my youth and we each received an allowance of $.25 (twenty five cents) per week to spend as we chose. That was just enough for me to go to the local Dairy Queen and buy one small ice cream cone with ten cents left over to put into their outdoor, wall-mounted, music selector (called a wall box) and play two songs (at $.05 cents apiece). The records that I played were not obscure songs or heavy duty ditties or nothing like that, but were in fact just common hits of the day. Songs like Oh Carol by Neil Sedaka and Red River Rock by Johnny & The Hurricanes and the like. We were not allowed to have radios or individual record players in our rooms at the orphanage, so the only time we ever really got to hear music was during some social functions, like Halloween dances or what we might hear outside the place when we were out. Some of the kids did have records, but they couldn’t play them except on special occasions.

At 4 years of age

In 1957 while still at Clayton College for Boys (an all male institution), one of the kids in my dorm had got a 45 rpm Elvis Sun single from somewhere, that was not even supposed to exist. Of course I didn’t know that it didn’t exist at the time. However I do know that it DID exist, because I had it in my possession for many years and I had played it literally hundreds of times, mostly at home since my mom had a small record record. I won’t bother to mention the name of the record, because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m either insane or on some kind of “happy pills”. Anyway, I decided that I wanted it, so I just took it from the kid that owned it. In those days if you wanted something that belonged to someone else, you just took it, assuming that you were “tough” enough to take it and keep it. Of course that tended to generate a lot of fights, but we didn’t mind that too much, it gave us something to keep ourselves in shape. That record was the very beginning of my first record collection and was in fact the very first record that I ever actually owned.

Willie at seven

When I was about seven or eight years old, I used to sneak down into the steam pipe tunnels that ran all over the orphanage complex for heating purposes, just to mess around sometimes. We were not allowed to be, or supposed to be down in them ever, but of course that never stopped any of us from going down there to play in or mess around in them, every chance that we got. Since the orphanage was on the east side of Denver, which was considered to be the “black side of town” at that time, we all had black friends that we hung out with. Mostly they were kids we met while going to school and such. Anyway, one day while I was down in the tunnels just goofin’ off, I could hear some singing going on. The steam tunnels made a great natural echo chamber and some of the older kids would go down there to take their girlfriends someplace private to “talk” or on occasions to harmonize with each other. One time some of the older boys (we ranged from age 3 to age 18) along with a black kid maybe sixteen or seventeen years old at the time, were down there just a singin’ away. The black kid was singing lead vocal, while the older orphanage kids were doing their best to harmonize with him. They were doing a style of music that I had never heard before. After they were done, I asked the black kid what kind of music it was they were singing. He told me that it was called Rhythm & Blues. He had a great voice and although he was being backed up by a bunch of vocally challenged white guys who really didn’t have much of an idea what the heck they were doing, they sounded very cool to me. I was totally fascinated by the music and the sounds that they were attempting to create. The black kid’s name was Vernon Green. He was going to East High School in Denver at the time.

Vernon Green & The Medallions (photo from the Ace Records Vernon Green page)

A couple years later, I found out that he had moved out to California and had formed a group of his own called Vernon Green & The Medallions. They signed a recording contract with Dootone Records in 1954 and then went on to have a fair amount of success out there. As his early records came out, he would send the older kids he had been singing with at the orphanage 45 rpm copies of them. These records included Buick 59 (one of the songs that they used to mess around with a lot in the tunnels that always made me laugh), The Letter (that was the flip side of Buick 59 on their first 45), as well as Edna and The Telegram. As time went on, they recorded quite a number of excellent songs. The older kids would play these records at all of our annual Halloween dances and the like. I fell in love with that style of music early on and wanted to hear as much of it as I could. It sure beat that c/w stuff I had been subjected to by a country mile!! The problem was, there just weren’t very many local radio stations (that I knew about anyway) playing much, if any rhythm & blues (or doo wop as it was to become known). As I mentioned before, I didn’t often have access to a radio to search the airwaves with neither. It seemed to me that it was mostly a segregated style of music that us white folks were just not allowed to be subjected to very often, if at all. It certainly was not to be found on the mainstream radio stations of those times, as far as I know. Over time, thank goodness, that did change though.

Vernon Green & The Medallions – Buick ’59

12 year old Lewis

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I took off from the orphanage. I just grew tired of their belt lines and getting pounded on by everyone older or bigger than I was. After I was picked up by the police, I was put into a temporary foster home over on the west side of Denver. I was there for a couple of months while they tried to figure out what they were going to do with me. The people who ran the foster home were Hispanic and they listened to a local Latino radio station every day. However on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, the station would play nothing but GREAT rhythm & blues music for two hours. The intro music into their rhythm & blues program was a really cool instrumental that really moved me called Night Train done up by a cat named Jimmy Forrest and the last song they always played as the program ended was So Long by Fats Domino. They played these two songs at the beginning and end of every Rhythm & Blues segment while I was there at the foster home. I think the call letters of the station were KFSC, but I can’t be positive. I believe that it was owned by a man named Francisco “Paco” Sanchez, but there was also a man named George Sandoval involved with the station in some capacity at that time as well. Mary Louise told me that the radio station (KFSC) was broadcasting live from the upstairs of LaModes Furniture Store on Santa Fe, but these are, at best, speculative memories on my part, as I was pretty young at the time and not exactly real well versed in the Spanish language. However, Mary Louise grew up around that area during that same time, so she should know. It was a very cool radio program and it was my very first real opportunity to hear a quantity of rhythm & blues on a regular basis. The radio program made a permanent musical impression on me that was to last pretty much my entire life (up to this point anyway). It was also my first time being subjected to Latino music as well. The radio station’s Latino programming must have had a lasting effect on me, because while collecting all of the other various genres of music that I have long been involved with over the years, I also amassed a substantial collection of Spanish music.

Jimmy Forrest – Night Train

After a couple of months in the foster home, I was (very unhappily) put back into the orphanage again. As always, I adapted to my environment, but I sure missed listening to that radio station. It was the first time I had ever got a chance to hear songs like Audry by Norman Fox & The Rob-Roys, Later Alligator and On Bended Knee by Bobby Charles and Sincerely by The Moonglows. Of course, there were a lot more songs than that played on those R&B shows. The songs mentioned here are just some examples of the type and quality of rhythm & blues music that they played. I can still remember these songs very clearly because they were for the most part, all the most requested tunes at the time, so they were played on a fairly regular basis.

15 years old

When I turned 15, I went back home again to live with my mother. She put me into North High School, but I had been shuffling back and forth between so many different schools… starting with four elementary schools, then four junior high schools and finally three different high schools. From the time I started going to school, I simply could not or DID NOT WANT to concentrate, absorb or retain information any longer. By the time that I started going to my third high school, I had NO desire to be there. I only went to North High School for about half a year. I got failing grades in every subject and begged my mother to just let me quit. She told me that it was either school or I had to get a job. Needless to say, I took the job option. My first job was at Walgreen’s drug store working as a busboy down on Colfax and Broadway. The pay was lousy, but I got free meals and a pretty good discount on all of the records and stuff that I bought there. They only sold albums though, so that was what I bought. I bought all the Elvis Presley LP’s and a whole bunch of Roulette and Original Sound oldies albums. Among other LP’s that I got there was The Cadillac’s first album on Jubilee.

It was also about that same time that a very nice black lady who ran the soda fountain told me about a place in Five Points which was known as a part of skid row at the time and was an almost exclusively black area. There were a fair number of local stores that sold records in and around there. Since I had lived around black people most of my life, I had no concerns about going into that part of town. All of the bars and local clubs there catered to live rhythm & blues acts, as well as various jazz and blues acts. There was a fairly small record shop down there called Rhythm Records & Sporting Goods, located on 26th and Welton, owned and ran by a real cool ol’ dude named Leroy Smith. About all he sold was rhythm & blues records, which I suppose is why he called his record shop “Rhythm Records”. I bought a lot of amazing stuff from the Rhythm Record Shop over time, including a 45 rpm copy of Gloria by the The Cadillacs. I was already hep to who The Cadillacs were because of their album I had bought earlier at my job, but Gloria flat out floored me. I had never heard a more beautifully harmonized song in my entire life. I would still put it among the top ten greatest doo wop singles of all time. I about drove my mom crazy playing it over and over again. I was hooked!

Cadillacs – Gloria

Among other records I bought from the Rhythm Record Shop was a very cool album by the The El Dorados on Vee-Jay (maroon label) called Crazy Little Mama and another superb album by The Spaniels, also on Vee-Jay Records (also on a maroon label), called simply The Spaniels. I was aware of the group because of the oldies albums that I had been accumulating around that same time. Of course at that time, I no idea at all about 1st or 2nd pressings or value or “collectability” at all. Over time, I bought a substantial quantity of great LP’s as well as many singles from Leroy’s place. Among other albums I can remember buying was a very cool Del-Vikings album on Luniverse called Come Go With The Del-Vikings, along with Little Richard’s 1st album and many, many other albums. I also bought some very cool 45’s like I Got Loaded by “Peppermint” Harris on Aladdin, yellow and black label Atlantic 45’s by artists such as the The Clovers and Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters, as well as a lot of Chess and Checker singles and albums. Over time I’d amassed a pretty substantial high quality (in my humble opinion) collection of very cool music. And since musical styles were beginning to change toward the soul era, I got all of my records at a great price down there.

Continue to Page Two of Willie Lewis‘ story.

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