In 1948, Stan Lewis Bet on Black Music. Really Good Call, Mr. Record Man
The way black music escaped from the other side of the tracks in the years after World War II, invading and ultimately stealing the hearts of young white America while old white America sputtered in futile rage, is one of the great cultural tales of the 20th century.
It’s a tale full of flawed giants, from Little Richard, Frankie Lymon and Chuck Berry to Smokey Robinson and the Chantels.
But for its first decade, well into the 1950s, this revolution had neither a leader nor a plan. It had a cast of thousands making a million small moves with their eyes rarely fixed on any prize more ambitious than making a few bucks today to pay the bills tomorrow.
All this came to mind Monday with the report that Stan Lewis had died at the age of 91, close to his lifelong home in Shreveport, La.
Lewis was one of those thousands, an important one. In the late ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s he ran a record store, appropriately named Stan’s, at 728 Texas Ave. in Shreveport.
While Stan Lewis was a white guy, Stan’s sold black music, in the center of Shreveport’s black community. He would later say that he survived the first few years through the grace of blues and R&B hits like John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” and Charles Brown’s “Troubled Blues.”
Lewis had grown up with big bands, but he sensed that the music world had changed. The years after World War II saw the big bands shrink, replaced by combos and solo artists.
Equally significant, those combos weren’t just playing “Take the A Train,” or if they were, they were playing it in a much different way.
Where popular music recordings before the war had mostly been aimed at adults, because they were the ones who had 35 cents or a dollar to spend on a record or sheet music, the post-war music world courted younger folks, right down to teenagers.
This new crowd wanted something faster, hipper. Something of their own. It wasn’t just a color thing, but the spark seemed particular explosive in the black music world, and when the major labels hesitated to explore these new sounds, dozens of independent labels rushed into the void.
Radio stations, which by now relied on recordings for most of their music programming, slowly started spreading it further, which in turn increased demand both for records to buy and availability on jukeboxes.
That’s where Stan Lewis comes in. He was a hustler in the respectable sense of the word, a kid from a retailing family who wanted to become an entrepreneur himself. While he was still a teenager he looked around, calculated supply and demand and sunk his savings into a couple of dozen coin-operated machines, including five jukeboxes.
Not too much later, frustrated with the local record store’s apparent inability to supply the records his jukebox patrons wanted to hear, he and his wife Paula bought the store for $2,500. Hello, Stan’s.
To promote sales, he bought a 15-minute show every day on local station KWKH. It was hosted by Ray Barrett, a white jock who called himself Groovy Boy and worked to sound black — think “jive talk” — on the air.
Yes, that does raise a bushel of troubling questions about how radio stations wanted to attract black listeners without violating the solid segregation wall and actually hiring black DJs.
But that’s another discussion, and for Lewis’s purposes, buying time on KWKH was one of his smarter moves. He would eventually expand to an hour of airtime in the evening, and all across the South, fans of blues and R&B knew they could send to Stan’s for the records they couldn’t get in their local shop.
Among those listeners was a young, regionally popular singer named Elvis Presley, who had the good fortune to be a regular on Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride radio show and would often drop into Stan’s to buy records in person. When he had new records of his own out, he reportedly did some signing sessions at Stan’s.
But while more white kids were catching the excitement of black music — beyond the cartoon image of beatniks grooving to jazz — Stan Lewis mostly succeeded because he took the time to serve his black customers.
The owners of almost all the major independent R&B labels in the early 1950s personally drove around the country a couple of times a year to meet with record store owners, DJs, jukebox operators, distributors and local talent scouts.
Pretty soon everyone who drove through Shreveport — the Bihari brothers from Modern Records in Los Angeles, the Chess brothers from Chess and Checker in Chicago, Art Rupe from Specialty, Lew Chudd from Imperial in L.A., etc. — made it a regular point to drop in on Stan Lewis. Those who came to town less often, like Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler from Atlantic, became his phone pals.
He carried their records, he sold their records, he promoted their records, he helped them find talent. That’s how he got co-writing credits on a song like the Flamingos’ wonderful “I’ll Be Home” or Dale Hawkins’s hit “Suzie Q.” He wasn’t a songwriter. That was a way to say thanks.
Lewis never stopped being a businessman. He eventually expanded Stan’s to six stores. He ran a one-stop distribution business that at one time had 600 labels for clients.
Over the years, like many of his entrepreneurial colleagues, he also became a music man, and he didn’t forget the people who kept him in business those first couple of years.
He started his own record label, Jewel, in 1964, and later added the Paula and Ronn subsidiaries. He released more than 1,000 records over the next two decades, and while his hit score was modest — some Little Johnny Taylor records, “Nothing Takes the Place of You” by Toussaint McCall, the pop novelty “Judy in Disguise” by John Fred and His Playboy Band — he kept recording artists like Hooker, Lowell Fulson, Elmore James, Frank Frost, Joe Turner and Buster Benton well after larger labels felt they’d exhausted their audiences.
Lewis sold his labels, his music and almost everything else in the late 1990s, effectively hanging it up after half a century in the game.
In interviews with writers like John Broven, who wrote a fine profile of Lewis in a book titled Record Makers and Breakers for the University of Illinois Press, the retired Lewis was still assessing the quality of his hustle, that is, what he shrewdly carved into a remarkable career.
He said he wished he’d started his own label 10 years earlier, when he could have plucked a wealth of artists with whom he’d built relationships — some R&B, some country folks like Webb Pierce and Jim Reeves.
He wished he’d sold his music at the top of the market instead of waiting and going with emusic, which went bankrupt 10 minutes later.
What he didn’t regret, he said, was betting on this different new outlier music that was just starting to seep into late-1940s America. A few times he came to open Stan’s in the morning and found KKK stickers on his door, he told Broven, but he knew that wasn’t stopping this.
Within a decade, “this” had become a major building block of something called rock ’n’ roll, and Stan Lewis had secured his legacy as a player who mattered in a game that counts.