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Gary Lewis & The Playboys
This Diamond Ring
Growing up as the son of entertainer Jerry Lewis had to be quite an adventure. Gary Lewis performed with his father and appeared in his movies. Visitors to his childhood home included a “who’s who” of Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. One highlight was when Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis’ partner, came to visit.
“My dad broke up with Dean when I was 12,” reflected Lewis, many years later. “I remember when Uncle Dean would come to the house and my father sent me to answer the door. Dean would be here with a champagne glass in his hand. It cracked me up. He was wonderful and funny.” (1)
There was another friend of his father that took a liking to Gary and took him under his wing. “My dad had a set of drums out in this house behind the main house, and this friend of my dad's kept saying, "Hey, let's go out to the drums, I'll show you some stuff." So here I am, five years old, and he would play something and I would repeat it right after him. And he kept telling me, "Yeah, you're going to be good one day. This is great."
“So when I'm about 14 years old, all of a sudden I realize this guy, this friend of my dad's, was Buddy Rich. And every time he'd come over he'd take me out in the back and show me things on drums. So isn't that amazing, for three to four years I was taking lessons from Buddy Rich.” (2)
As the years of his childhood passed, he knew what he didn’t want to do with his life. “I respected my Dad’s work tremendously. At an early age, I realized I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. If I do anything remotely close to what my dad does, I'll never have my own identity, I'll always be compared to him, and that would be bad for any person to have to go through. Besides, my love was music.” (2)
For his 15th birthday in the summer of 1960, Gary was given a set of drums. Three years later he formed a group in the Los Angeles area with David Walker (rhythm guitar), Allan Ramsey (bass guitar), David Costell (lead guitar), John West (Cordovox electronic accordion) and Gary on drums. “We used a room in the house for rehearsal. But, we had to rehearse when my dad wasn't home because my mom was financing the whole deal and she told me, ‘Hey, if this venture fails, I gotta come up with some kind of excuse on where this money went. So don't tell your father anything about it,’" Gary recalled. “I don't know (if my Dad would have financed the group). I was only 18 when I started the band. I'm asking my mom all these things...’Hey mom, buy us these amps. Buy us this set of drums. This is what we need and we also need the microphones.’ She was kind of like scared about having to get that stuff for us. So, I figured my dad was gonna be pretty tough about it. So, when she said don't tell him, I said OK. If we can get the stuff, I won't tell him.” (3)
The original group from 1964. Back: Dave Costell and John West. Front: Dave Walker, Gary and Al Ramsey.
Photo courtesy of https://www.garylewisandtheplayboys.com.
One day, two of the guys were late for rehearsal and when they finally arrived Gary asked, "Where have you Playboys been?" And the others said, "Hey, that's a good name." The point about being late was missed but from that confrontation, the group found their name. They were now known as Gary & The Playboys.
The band rehearsed about a year before they auditioned for a job at Disneyland in 1964. No Disney employees knew about Lewis' celebrity father. "When we went down to Disneyland to audition, it was just Gary & the Playboys, We went through the channels we had to go through with no favors from dad. We got the job and I told everybody this is how I want to keep it. I don't want to get any jobs because I'm his son. I won't do it. I just will absolutely not do it. If you don't have talent, the door will slam in your face, anyway.” (2)
The entertainment director of the park liked what he saw and heard and hired Gary and the boys on the spot to perform at the Space Bar in Tomorrowland. Audiences enthusiastically accepted them from the very first night and as the word spread, it was not long before they were playing to a packed house every night. At this point, guitarist Dave Walker handled most of the vocals with Gary on the drums. “We had no tunes of our own. They just wanted a dance band. That's where we were playing for June, July and August of 1964.” (3)
It didn’t take long for word to reach Los Angeles about the work of Gary & The Playboys. Thomas “Snuff” Garrett was a record producer for Liberty Records and had a knack of finding songs and making them hits with a roster of artists that included Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette, Gene McDaniels and Buddy Knox.
Surprisingly, Garrett lived just two doors down from the Lewis family. Jerry Lewis and Snuff had a mutual friend, conductor Lou Brown, who'd worked with Jerry ever since the Martin & Lewis days. It was Brown who brought Gary Lewis to Snuff's attention. Garrett would later recall: "Lou came up to the office one day and said, 'Jerry's son Gary is playin' in a group... they're playin' out at Disneyland.' A week or so later he said, 'They're gonna rehearse at Paramount tonight. Why don't I come over and pick you up, we'll have a bite to eat and go over and see them?' So I did. Gary was the drummer. He wasn't the singer or anything else.” (8)
At first, Snuff was unimpressed. “They sounded like all the other groups to me. The next day I got to thinkin', if I could make him the singer, I'd never heard him sing, I thought, it'd be a new way to promote records, the son of a famous entertainer!" (3)
Gary remembers the first meeting with Garrett a bit differently. “Snuff Garrett was just a customer in the park (Disneyland). He paid to get in with his family and saw us play. Backstage afterwards, he gave me his card and said, "I'd like to talk to you about doing some recording for my label, Liberty Records." And that's just how everybody envisions (the start of their career), they'd love that to happen to them. And that's exactly how it happened to us.” (2)
Snuff talked it over with the group and booked some studio time for them to rehearse. When he felt they were ready, Garrett put his plan in motion. The label signed the band on the condition that he would sing (a prospect he wasn't keen on) and the act would be renamed Gary Lewis & The Playboys. His mother, Patti Palmer Lewis, managed the group. The connection to his movie star dad would at some point be made obvious. (4)
Meanwhile, Al Kooper, Bob Brass and Irwin Levine were songwriters pushing their songs through the various stops in New York’s Brill Building. Not making any money, they decided to freelance their work with hopes of landing a hit with a song they wrote with The Drifters in mind.
Needing some quick cash, they sold their tune, This Diamond Ring, to publisher Aaron Schroeder. The Drifters turned down the song but fate gave it another life. Snuff Garrett had heard Jimmy Radcliffe’s demo of it in music publisher Aaron Schroeder’s Manhattan office. “I really sold myself on the song,” says Snuff. When Schroeder asked Snuff whom he had in mind to cut it, Snuff replied, “I don’t know but I got a guy I’m thinking about recording.” (5)
Garrett thought the song, with modifications, would be perfect for Bobby Vee. Like the Drifters, Vee turned it down. Garrett then directed his attention to Gary Lewis & The Playboys. “Snuffy called me into his office after we had signed, and he said, ‘We have to be very careful now. We're going to pick your first song. We want it to be a big one.’ Then he said, ‘I've got this song that I offered to Bobby Vee,’ he said, ‘Bobby doesn't like it, he doesn’t want to do it.’ And so I listened to a demo of it and I said, ‘Well, yeah, I like the tune. Sure, let's do it.’" (2)
At this point, the story of who played on the song becomes a matter of whom one would ask. According to Lewis, "The Playboys played on every track we ever did, the Wrecking Crew did solos and overdubs. I sang every song myself and had a backup singer that sang only harmonies with me. Snuff Garrett can back up everything I've told you, and so can Leon Russell, who was the arranger of everything I did." (6) “We went into the studio and cut the basic track. The only other person from the Wrecking Crew that we had in there while we were doing the basic track was Hal Blaine, and he played the tympanis on Diamond Ring,” Lewis recalled. (2)
Lewis also has the support of the American Federation of Musicians call sheet dated November 30, 1964 that states that Russell Bridges (Leon Russell), Hal Blaine, Gary Lewis, John R. West, Allen L. Ramsey and David M. Costell were paid for a session dated on November 19, 1964. (7)
Image courtesy of http://www.wreckingcrewfilm.com/afmcontracts/Lewis,Gerry+Playboys_ThisDiamondRing.pdf.
According to Gary James at classicbands.com, Garrett told a different story. “During the actual recording, The Playboys were almost irrelevant, as they weren't allowed to play their instruments and their voices were used sparingly. Snuff wanted a hit, so he insisted on using trusted studio musicians…a point that Gary disputed for years. Garrett recalled: ‘I got a piano player I knew named Leon Russell to do the arranging. I didn't use The Playboys at all except as overtones.’ The studio musicians included Tommy Alsup on guitar, Carol Kaye on bass, Leon Russell on keyboards and Hal Blaine on drums. To help fill out what he felt to be Gary's vocal shortcomings, Snuff brought in a session singer, too. His name was Ron Hicklin. Ron did the basic vocal track, then Snuff added Gary's voice, overdubbed him a second time, added some of the Playboys and then added more of Hicklin. ‘When I got through, he (Lewis) sounded like Mario Lanza’, Snuff commented.” (8)
Ed Osborne shed some light on both sides of the subject with his excellent liner notes written for the CD compilation of Gary Lewis & The Playboys. As far as Gary’s claims, “The Playboys played on every single song. The session people did guitar solos, piano solos, or overdubs. If there was a certain drum feel, that I couldn’t play, then Hal Blaine would do it.” Future Playboy Jimmy Karstein agrees. “On a few sessions I did, it seemed like (the studio players) augmented the band. Gary and his guys were always on (the record) when I was there. I tend to think Gary played something on all of his records.” (5)
Again, Garrett and Blaine remember the sessions differently. According to Snuff, "The studio musicians played all the instrumental tracks." Hal expressed his own thoughts."(We) did just about all the stuff that Leon arranged and Snuff produced. Gary’s band was there, learning from us. They talked about the fact that they could never do that stuff. We were hired because we could do it quick and we could do it right.” (5)
Hal also remembers other specifics about the This Diamond Ring session. “Every time there was a key change, they’d stop tape so I could re-tune the tymps. There were a lot of key changes in that song, as I recall. I also remember I played the cymbal tree. Brrriiinnng. It’s all over that record.” (5)
Once the basic music track was complete, it was time to add the vocals. Gary explained, "I never sang live. Everything was tracked first. Snuffy always used to say that you just couldn’t get the right mix on the voice if you’re out there with the instruments, no matter how much baffling there was (to stop the bleed-through into the vocal mic).” (5)
Osborne notes that Gary’s inexperience as a studio vocalist presented Snuff with a challenge. With frustration mounting for all involved, Bones Howe, the engineer suggested they call Ron Hicklin, the leader of the vocal group, The Ron Hicklin Singers, who had provided background vocals for a number of artists including Bobby Vee and Julie London.
“They had gotten to a point where they were bogged down in the session,” recalled Hicklin. “Bones suggested that we get Ron down here to sing with Gary. They called me at home and I left immediately for the studio. I suggested, ‘Why don’t I put a harmony on with him in the bridge?’ So, I did. After hearing the results, they thought Gary's voice sounded ‘a little biting and nasal’. They asked, ‘Why don’t you sing with him to round it out?’ (9)
Lewis stated that Garrett added Hicklin “for a variation of tone. He didn’t want the same person’s tone in the song. So, Ron sang with me on everything. We sang the vocal together…much like the Everly Brothers.” Hicklin added, “We used this formula for seven straight top ten hits. (9)
Gary double-tracked his own voice on This Diamond Ring but from then on, the lead vocal became a Gary/Ron duet. "I sang all the leads right along with Gary," said Ron, “the two of us on the same mic at the same time. Whatever he was doing, I could phrase it with him at exactly the same time, almost as if we were linked mentally. Then we'd do the overdubs, multi-tracking the voice, and then I would do any backgrounds myself." (5)
Before the song was released, all of The Playboys had to sign a contract with Gary and his mother Patty, and became employees of ESTA MUSIC. They were no longer a group with equal participation or financing. It was official… the group became known as Gary Lewis & The Playboys. There were advantages and disadvantages to this setup. For one, Patty Lewis knew contracts and if there points she was unsure of, she knew where to go to get answers. “(Since) I was still a minor, she had to sign all the contracts and do all the business, so she actually acted as the manager and she never took ten percent. I said, ‘Mom you’re entitled to take the percentage.’ She said, ‘I don’t need it.’ With my mom as manager I felt really safe and confident. So, that was cool.” (10) Because of those contracts negotiated by his mother, Gary still collects royalties on his songs today.
Once This Diamond Ring, was released in late 1964, Snuff started the wheels of promotion moving. Snuff got This Diamond Ring onto the radio in New York City by making a deal with WINS disc jockey Murray the K, who ran a series of all-star concerts at theaters around the New York area. He was promised that if he played Lewis' record, The Playboys would do his shows. (8)
On December 6, 1964, Gary and his group were booked on The Ed Sullivan Show. There was a problem though. It was Sullivan's policy that all the acts appearing on his show had to perform live. Since so many studio tricks had been used on the record, there was no way The Playboys could re-create its sound. So a compromise was struck. Gary sang along with pre-recorded tracks as the Playboys faked it on instruments. According to Garrett, this marked the first time that a song had been lip-synched on the show. (8)
From left to right, John R. West, Dave Walker, David Costell, Gary (sitting) and Carl Radle.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives.
This Diamond Ring debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on January 16, 1965. (11) Around this time, another artist, Sammy Ambrose recorded and released This Diamond Ring in late 1964. The Ambrose version landed at #117 on the Billboard Bubbling Under chart on January 9, 1965, never to be heard from again. (12)
It was a different story with the version cut by Gary Lewis & The Playboys. Debuting at #65, the song landed at #34, #7, #4 for two weeks before ousting the Righteous Brothers You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin from the #1 slot on February 20. (13)
“When This Diamond Ring was up to about 50 on the Billboard charts with a bullet, my mom said, ‘OK. Now we can tell your dad.’ I told my dad about it and he said, ‘Oh, man. That's great. I don't care what you do in life as far as a career, just as long as you love it with all your heart and give it a hundred per cent. I only ask one thing, don't grow your hair like those damn Beatles!’" Gary paused. “I never did grow my hair long. I was 18 and still living at home. I’m no fool!” (3)
‘When we heard the song on the radio, and we just flipped out beyond belief, because it's getting so much airplay and they wanted us to do all the local TV shows with the song. So we were flying real, real high. And Snuffy Garrett calls us in one day and says, ‘Listen, you guys, I know it's exciting and all that. But you've got to calm down.’ He said’, "You know how many one-hit artists there are out there?’ We've got to concentrate on getting #2, and if we can do that, we might be our way." So he brought us right back down to earth, which was a very good thing. Because the second tune was Count Me In. That went to #2 in the country. Snuffy Garrett not only had the ability to pick hit songs, but he knew when to put them out, too. He wouldn't put out a new tune of ours if The Beatles just came out with a new tune. He'd wait for about three weeks. Let the people have their fill of the Beatles and then put it out. It worked. The first seven were all Top Ten.” (2)
Not everyone was pleased with the Lewis/Garrett collaboration of This Diamond Ring. Al Kooper, one of the songwriters, had this to say about the Garrett and Lewis treatment of his song. "Garrett had cut a white version of our tune with Jerry Lewis’ thoroughly inoffensive white son, Gary and sent us a copy the day it was released. We were revolted. They’d removed the soul from our R&B song and made a teenage milkshake out of it. Never mind that who-were-we-to-be-talking-about-soul in the first place; this was disgusting. We dismissed This Diamond Ring by Gary Lewis and The Playboys on one hearing.
To our surprise, after a hype-ridden sendoff on The Ed Sullivan Show, all you could hear on the radio was our turkey milkshake. Suddenly, we were on the charts and our song became the number one song in the country! America had finally seen fit to recognize our 'talent.' We conveniently forgot our previous animosity toward the record and concentrated on basking in as much of the glory as we squeeze out of it. The day the record hit number one, we just stared at the charts and laughed and laughed." (14)
The formula of Lewis/Hicklin/Garrett and Playboys/Wrecking Crew was magic. In addition to reaching the Top Ten with their first seven songs, they also scored Top Twenty hits with their first ten songs. It appeared they were unstoppable —that is until Uncle Sam came calling. Following his last appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (December 4, 1966), Gary received his draft notice and less than a month later, on New Years Day in 1967, he officially entered the U.S. Army for a two-year period. He took basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“I got my draft notice, and the first thing that popped into my mind was (since) Elvis did it, I'm doing it. That's all there is to it. After basic and advanced training, the Army said to me, ‘Why don't you get a band together from people on the base and just go around the country and do shows for us, Special Services?’ And I said, ‘I don't want to do that. I've got to live with these guys in the barracks, and you're going to show me favoritism? Not good. Not good at all.’ So I said, ‘Please, just give me a job to do and let me do it. So they asked, ‘Well, how about Saigon, then?’ I went over there for a few months and they put me in a holding company because they had no idea what they wanted to do with me. I'm sure they were thinking of political ramifications of putting me in the field somewhere. I don't know what they were thinking. But anyway, I saw no action. And then they sent me to South Korea to finish up my foreign tour of duty.” (2)
Though Lewis was away from the music business just two years, he recounted the enormous changes. “When I was in the service, the music changed radically and it happened so fast. All of a sudden it was Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and that kind of music was in … and I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got out.”
“When I did get out, Snuffy told me, ‘You know, there’s really no more market for your kind of music.' You know …'thanks bye!' Instead of saying, well, maybe we can try this or try that… they just said, ‘Okay thanks, see you!’ And it was very hard to take.” (10)
When the band officially broke up in 1970, he decided to try another side of the music business. “I bought a music store in California and sold guitar equipment and drums and everything, gave lessons on drums. So, what I had to do, in order to stay in the business, I kept working all the time but had to play smaller venues, clubs, and do four sets a night. If we wanted to keep working, that’s what we had to do. It was a pretty good living.
In 1984, an agent from Indiana called me and said, "Hey, man, the '60s music is coming back." I answered, “Yeah, right. Okay”. He said, "No, really, I can get you 60 to 100 dates a year, I'm sure of it." I said, "Well, if you can do it, I'll play 'em." And that's exactly what's been happening since '84. So from 1984 until now I’ve been doing 60 to 100 dates a year and it’s wonderful.” (10) (2)
First, the demo by Jimmy Radcliffe...
From late 1964, here's Sammy Ambrose...
Finally, a lip-synced version by Gary Lewis & The Playboys presented on PBS.
1) Anthony Violanti, Ocala Star Banner, Gary Lewis talks about dad, Uncle Dean and music, January 11, 2007. Link.
2) Carl Wiser, Songfacts, Songwriter Interviews Gary Lewis, March 8, 2012. Link.
4) Michael Jack Kirby, Way Back Attack, Gary Lewis And The Playboys, Link.
5) Ed Osborne, Liner notes from The Complete Liberty Singles, 2009.
6) Songfacts, This Diamond Ring by Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Link.
7) American Federation of Musicians contract dated November 30, 1964.
9) Facebook.com, Wrecking Crew Film Videos, Ron Hinklin, Posted March 3, 2019. Link.
10) Ray Shasho, The Classic Rock Music Reporter, Gary Lewis of the Playboys Interview: Happy Together Tour 2013, May 26, 2013, Link.
11) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Pages 408-409.
12) Joel Whitburn, Bubbling Under Singles & Albums, Page 17.
13) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties, 1990.
14) Al Kooper, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock 'N' Roll Survivor, February 1, 2008. Page 26.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives.
© 2019 Jerry Reuss