- 09 Nov 22
The 2020 documentary The Ballad of Don Lewis: The Untold Story of a Synthesizer Pioneer by Ned Augustenborg explores the groundbreaking musician's life and innovative spirit.
Pioneering electronic music composer and musician Don Lewis has died at the age of 81 on Sunday, November 6th.
His 54-year career saw him design sounds and instrument voices for Hammond, Roland, Yamaha, and ARP, as well as create a unique live rig. He performed at renowned venues including the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, and the Apollo Theater, and collaborated with the likes of Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and The Beach Boys.
Lewis developed the influential Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO) in the mid '70s, which integrated multiple instruments under a controller system and predated the MIDI controller by ten years.
The custom rig could control synthesizers and sound modules with custom-designed keyboards, long before MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was introduced in 1983, which has since been used to connect electronic musical instruments, computers and related audio devices for playing, editing, and recording music.
The Ohio native majored in Electronics Engineering at the former Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He sang with the Tuskegee Chorus in his 20s, and in support of the Civil Rights Movement, played music at rallies led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rest In Peace Musician and Synthesizer pioneer Don Lewis. A long time Bay Area resident, he was influential in the development of the Roland TR-808, Yamaha DX-7, and his invention LEO seen below, was ahead of its time. He was an amazing human being full of joy and light. pic.twitter.com/XIfSjxxFtL
— KevChoice (@KevChoice) November 8, 2022
Lewis later served in the Air Force as a Nuclear Weapons Specialist for a number of years, and worked as an engineering technician, choir director, and nightclub musician.
Following his decision to pursue music full-time, Don Lewis moved to California, where he collaborated with many high-profile musicians and producers. He also opened for The Beach Boys during their 1974 tour.
Lewis strove to encourage children's interest in music and the arts. He taught at UC Berkeley Extension and as a guest lecturer at Stanford University and San Jose State University. In 1987, the synthesizer pioneer created the education-focused Say Yes to Music! concert tours, which were produced by his wife Julie.
A 2020 documentary about Don Lewis' life tells "the story of an American pioneer who overcame technological limitations and racial biases in order to attain creative fulfillment during The Music Industry’s most exciting and inspiring era".
Directed by Ned Augustenborg, The Ballad of Don Lewis: The Untold Story of a Synthesizer Pioneer will make its television debut on PBS in February 2023 as Don Lewis and the Live Electric Orchestra.
Watch Don Lewis explain how his Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO) works below.