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The Black Joe Lewis Story

The Godson of Garage Soul takes his swing at success



If there's one thing I learned from watching former late-night television host Tom Snyder, it's that the most disarmingly clueless questions can prompt the best answers. So it shouldn't have been surprising to see an online video interviewer ask soulman Black Joe Lewis why he calls himself "Black."

Sure, Black Joe Lewis may sound black, given the fact that his raw vocal style calls to mind James Brown or Wilson Pickett fronting a horn-driven, punk-inflected soul band. And he also may look black, given the fact that he is. But for at least one inquiring mind, the question still burned:

Why does he call himself black?

Onstage or off, Lewis doesn't miss a beat: "It's because that's how I like my coffee."

'Bitch, I Love You'

United by an affinity for old soul, older blues and timeless yacht rock (more on that later), Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears share deep musical inspirations. The eight-piece Austin band — which tends to refer to its music as "garage soul" — was formed two years ago after guitarist Zack Ernst booked Lewis to open for Little Richard at a University of Texas show.

"I wanted to hear 'Rip It Up' and he never played that," complains Lewis. "But he's still Little Richard, you know, so it was cool to see him."

Like Little Richard and Screamin' Jay Hawkins before him, Lewis brings an undiluted exuberance to his band's debut, a self-titled EP released last January on the Lost Highway label. Who can fail to be charmed by the heartwarming sentiments of rave-ups like "Bitch, I Love You"? The same goes for "Cousin Randy," a largely improvised tale, accompanied by steel guitar and some mojo hand mythology, that recounts a demonically possessed character's diarrhetic demise. ("I was just on that day, I guess," says Lewis.)

With its cover design explicitly patterned after Lightnin' Hopkins' self-titled album of a half-century earlier — "I love Lightnin'," says Lewis, "and we're both from Texas" — the EP was met with justifiably rapturous critical acclaim. In March, the band further delivered on its promise with a full album, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, highlighted by "I'm Broke," an original funk workout that James Brown might have been proud to call his own.

Happily, Lewis' financial prospects have improved since his most recent job driving a fish delivery van for $9 an hour. (Prior employment included shucking oysters in a restaurant and selling guitars in a pawn shop, which is how he got started on the instrument.) Lewis says he hasn't worked a day gig in two or three months and doesn't really miss it: "I've been home for a couple of weeks and I wish I had something to do, but that's about it."

Of course, Lewis can always relive the excitement of life on the road by listening to his copy of Steely Dan's first album, from which he can more or less recite actual lyrics.

"I like the second song where he's like, 'Thelonius my old friend / I've come to speak with you again,'" says the artist who decided to post a personally "influential" track each day during his "June is Black Joe Lewis Music Month!" campaign. Among them are a few yacht rock classics.

"Oh yeah, that's my new pleasure," he says of the late '70s smooth-rock phenomenon. "The whole band's been getting into yacht rock. I mean, it started out as a joke, and the first one was Michael McDonald — he was like the Godfather of it all — and then it just grew. That's all we listen to in the van now."

Um, why?

"I think it's just the way it sounds. It's relaxing! It's like when you have those records in your collection that you don't want anyone else to know that you have, you know?"

Part-time punks

Other honorees during Black Joe Lewis Month (which ended somewhat prematurely on June 11) included Hound Dog Taylor, Thin Lizzy and a trio of punk icons: Iggy & the Stooges, the Saints and the Damned.

Part of what Lewis likes about late '70s punk rock, he says, is that it draws upon the same chord progressions and intense energy that early blues artists brought to their music. The band has even taken to covering the Stooges' "I Got a Right" during its live shows.

"We went on tour with the New York Dolls, and Syl Sylvian sat in with us a couple of times," says Lewis. "He'd play on 'Bitch, I Love You.'"

Having also toured with Austin indie band Spoon, whose Jim Eno ended up producing Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, Lewis figures he and the Honeybears can now play for any audience. Even Michael McDonald's: "Yeah, we've been trying to get him to come out with us, but he's hard to get hold of."

So does Lewis want to keep doing this as long as McDonald and Iggy have?

"Yeah, I think so," he says. "It would be better than working for Walmart."

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