Music icon dies doing what he loved

jdodge@theolympian.comMarch 18, 2014 

His birth name was Louis John Loiacono. But here in South Sound, we all knew him as Johnny Lewis.

A mainstay in the South Sound music scene for 50 years, Lewis died Friday at his daughter’s South Bay home. He was 88.

His wife, Ruth Lewis, said he was giving a music lesson to a young girl just before he collapsed. “He died doing what he loved best — playing music,” she told me Monday morning.

His Johnny Lewis Big Band and Johnny Lewis Trio were fixtures at community events and festivals in South Sound areas for years, playing everything from bar mitzvahs to governor inaugural balls.

Lewis also purchased the Lacey Music Store on Pacific Avenue in 1966. Three moves and 48 years later, the store is known as Music 6000 at 3738 Pacific Ave. SE, Olympia.

While the business grew and prospered, Lewis was always happiest when performing.

“He really loved the stage — that’s where he thrived,” noted his son, Jeff Lewis, who’s worked in the family business for some 40 years. “He was always running around, playing somewhere.”

Accomplished on the saxophone and clarinet, he also played the piano, vibes, flute and trumpet.

“In his younger years, he also tap danced,” said Mike Shea, a tenor saxophone player in the Johnny Lewis Big Band for 20 years.

As a young musician after World War II, Lewis and his trio played nightclubs and resorts all over the country: Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, Nev., and the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. His band shared the stage with big name performers, including Sarah Vaughn, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Victor Borge. He recorded for major record labels including Decca, Columbia and Capitol records, and played on television’s “Tonight Show” when Steve Allen was its first host in the mid-1950s.

In 1962, the Johnny Lewis Trio played at the Seattle World’s Fair. It was after the fair that Lewis opted to put down roots in the Pacific Northwest, settling in the Olympia area. Throughout the 1960s, his band performed at the former Tyee Motor Inn in Tumwater, the Jacaranda on the Port of Olympia peninsula and the Elks Club in Tacoma, among other places, recalled Tom Barte, a Lewis family friend since the late 1960s.

The two men of Italian descent formed the Olympia chapter of the Sons of Italy. Lewis was also active in civic groups, including the Navy League, Lacey Rotary and Lacey Chamber of Commerce.

He met Ruth Stubbs in 1969, and she and her four children were soon working in the music store. The couple married in 1973, and Lewis adopted the children.

“We were soulmates,” she said. “Every night he told me he loved me.”

Barte said the Lewis couple enjoyed a very public life. “I always joked that they would go to a garage door opening if they were invited.”

“Lewis was a mainstay in the big band music scene,” noted fellow horn player Andy Omdahl. “He was a helluva nice guy and always provided a place for musicians to play.”

“I never say anybody work as hard as Johnny,” Shea said. “He and Ruth would have all the band equipment set up on stage before the band members arrived to play.”

The youngest of 10 children born to immigrant parents from Sicily, Lewis grew up in Rochester, N.Y., joined the Navy at age 17 during World War II and was recruited to play in a Navy, 90-piece band, his wife recalled.

After the war, he formed the Johnny Lewis Trio, but, at the advice of his father, he also learned to be a watchmaker and hypnotist just in case the music career faltered, Barte recalled.

Late in life, Lewis struggled with diabetes and heart problems. He was admitted to Providence St. Peter Hospital just before Christmas, then moved to Mother Joseph Care Center before moving to the home of his daughter, Dana Clark.

“We were over there for dinner last Wednesday night, and he was animated and seemed to be doing fine,” Barte said.

“He loved his music, and he loved life. He was a lot of fun.”

Services are set for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Michael Catholic Parish. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations should go to the Loiacono Music Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) at: P.O. Box 12986, Olympia, Wash., 98508.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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