The Troy Street Observer

Dec 18, 1949: Last Call for the Sabby Lewis Orchestra

“Sabby Lewis is really rollin’ at the Show Boat!” gushed George Clarke in his Daily Record column of December 7, 1949 (earlier Lewis entries here and here). “And with Jimmy Tyler back in the fold, plus a new and fabulous trumpeter, the band is hotter than ever.” That fabulous trumpeter was none other than Cat Anderson.

Photo of Sabby Lewis
Sabby Lewis and Al Morgan, 1945

The Lewis Orchestra never had such punch, with Anderson joining longtime brass men Gene Caines and Maceo Bryant, and Tyler rejoining Bill Dorsey and Dan Turner in the sax section. Lewis, Al Morgan, and Joe Booker formed an unbeatable rhythm section, and Marilyn Kilroy handled the vocals. This was a formidable band.

Sabby brought the orchestra to the Show Boat, at 252 Huntington Avenue, in late November, leaving his home base at the Hi-Hat. It was a questionable decision. The club had no established clientele, and certainly no jazz clientele, because it had cycled through numerous entertainment policies in the postwar years and none of them had clicked. In fact, jazz fans’ impressions of the place were probably negative because of the bad feelings surrounding the closure of the Zanzibar Club there in 1948. Finally, the Show Boat was too far away from the cluster of clubs around Mass Ave and Columbus, where all the people were.

And there was this. The Lewis orchestra was the second jazz group hired by the Show Boat. A Frankie Newton quartet came earlier, and as its drummer, Alan Dawson, later recalled: “We couldn’t draw flies.”

So on came Lewis, with the strongest lineup Sabby had mustered in his 13 years as a leader, and favorable press helping him along. And they couldn’t draw flies.

Nor could he pay the band, and after three weeks, they told Lewis that if he could not pay them at the end of the week—on Sunday, December 18—they wouldn’t play anymore. Lewis could not make the payroll, and when the band left the stand that Sunday night, every last man quit. Sabby Lewis, the man who embodied jazz in Boston in the 1940s, ended the decade without a band.

The band didn’t break up. They named Jimmy Tyler the new leader, installed Jimmie Martin in the piano chair, and opened as the Jimmy Tyler Orchestra at the Hi-Hat on New Year’s Eve. They stayed until April.

Lewis was bitter about the breakup and the circumstances surrounding it, but he moved ahead quickly. He assembled a new octet (Dawson was the drummer) and opened at Wally’s Paradise on January 6, and for three months, listeners could hear both bands nightly just by crossing Columbus Avenue.

Cat Anderson stayed in Boston for the Hi-Hat engagement and then returned to New York and the Ellington Orchestra. The Tyler Orchestra spent the better part of two years on the road, arriving back in Boston with Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs show in April 1952. When that closed, Tyler broke up the band. Later that year Booker, Dorsey, and Morgan rejoined Lewis.

Lewis never regained his place of prominence in Boston jazz, although iterations of his “new” band worked into 1957. Lewis made his last recordings, two singles for ABC-Paramount, in 1956.

In 1952 Lewis became an announcer at WBMS-AM, but he was not the first African-American DJ on Boston radio, as the internet seems to believe; that was Eddy Petty, who had a daily show on WVOM-AM three years earlier.

After 1957, Lewis led mainly led trios, until an October 1962 auto accident took him off the scene for about a year. When he began to play again, it was mostly as a single. In 1964 Lewis became a housing investigator for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, a job he held for 20 years, and for a decade he did not play professionally.

In the 1980s Lewis was again working as a single, often in upscale lounges—the Meridian Hotel, the Bay Tower Room, the Ritz-Carlton. He played publicly for the last time in June 1994, and died at age 79 on July 9 that year.

But that is far from the Show Boat in 1949. Two years earlier, Lewis recorded “Bottoms Up” on the Crystal-Tone label, notable for its fiery Jimmy Tyler tenor solo, which became Tyler’s calling card thereafter. I just added it to my YouTube channel:

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