The Lewis Connection: Resurrecting a legendary album

The original photo from the back of the Lewis Connection's only album

The original photo from the back of the Lewis Connection's only album

In the parking lot of the Lux Club in south Minneapolis, Pierre Lewis delivered a priceless package to Jon Kirby, who had flown from Chicago for the exchange. As the keyboardist for the Commodores, Lewis travels the country backing the Motown legends, but never misses a Sunday gig at the Lux (3836 Fourth Ave. S., Minneapolis) when he's in town. Inside the package was one of Lewis's greatest contributions to Minneapolis music, which has finally been given its long overdue revival this month — his last sealed copy of The Lewis Connection, the 1979 album he recorded with his brother Andre.

Kirby is the A&R rep for the venerable Chicago-based archival label Numero Group, now in its 10th year of introducing and reintroducing listeners to the obscure and extraordinary. They have worked on an epic four-LP compilation of early "Minneapolis sound" recordings for years, and thought the Lewis Connection album would whet appetites for its proposed fall release. Kirby describes the album as "greater than the sum of its parts," noting that pulling a few tracks for the compilation wouldn't do it justice.

For years, collectors have lusted after the album, and in its rare appearances it sells for top dollar. The main reason for the interest has been the contribution of young Prince Rogers Nelson, then a 21-year-old sideman recruited by the Lewis Brothers for a single track recorded at Sound 80. His future sideman, Sonny Thompson, wrote the song and sang lead.

"Me and Sonny and Prince, we'd play at Sonny's house. We'd be switching instruments around; Prince could play all the instruments well," recalls Lewis from his St. Paul home. The three grew up together.

The track was originally recorded by an earlier Lewis brothers project, the Family — not to be confused with Prince's own mid-'80s Family — but never issued. Lewis explains: "When we recorded that song at Sound 80 it was expensive, $120 an hour. And we agreed that whoever hustled the money up first would have the right to the master."

"Got to Be Something Here" is primordial Prince, his first track on wax and a seminal moment in Minneapolis music history, but it's Sonny T's show. "He's incredible," Lewis says of the future NPG bassist. "I don't think he's even from this world. He was born with perfect pitch, and he sees music in colors. I don't even understand what he was doing." Lewis knew enough to raise some cash and stash the master tape away.

A couple of years later, the Lewis brothers had finished cobbling together an album. Working at several studios around the city with engineer David Rivkin, they found they needed an additional track to fill out the second side. The other five tracks featured Andre's funky bass, Pierre's keyboards infused with soul-jazz fusion, and a changing cast of sidemen, notably drummer Richard Lowe.

The band pressed a thousand copies of the album. "We used it to open doors we couldn't get into before," Lewis explains. Soon the Lewis Connection was playing better nightclub gigs, and opening for national acts. The band played in Florida for a while, where Lewis remembers "Got to Be Something Here" drew a little airplay.

When he was given the opportunity to play with James Brown's band, backing Precious Wilson overseas, Andre Lewis left. Pierre Lewis and singer Barbara Bolar starting playing with a Filipino guitar player, but when he left for Japan, taking Bolar with him, Pierre was stranded. "I was a single father, I couldn't leave the city." Only a year and a half after they released their album, the Lewis Connection was no more.

Circumstances conspired to take the album itself away from Lewis, too. "What happened was that while I was living out of the state, my sister cleaned up and threw away the master, and about four or five hundred copies of the album," Lewis explains. "There were boxes that hadn't even been opened."

Lewis laments the money he could have made off the albums, even before the record became a rare collector's item. "We would sell a few at shows; I would get them into record stores."

Prince's presence increased interest in the album in spite of its scarcity. Counterfeits appeared. "I can't blame somebody for trying to make some money, I guess, but I wish they wouldn't do that," says Lewis.

The Lewis brothers had moved from studio to studio chasing lower rates, and the album was hastily mixed and mastered. Ad hoc as it is, the album captures the intensity and potential of the Minneapolis scene in the late '70s. Jokes persist that the band couldn't afford two N's and that's why their name was misspelled on the cover. The back cover has a hastily taken shot of the band by Chris Moon on top of his studio.

The Lewis Brothers' funky tracks are as fresh today as ever, and the Numero reissue faithfully recreates the album while brightening some of the muddiness of the original master, bringing it closer to what the Lewis brothers intended in 1979.

Pierre Lewis always knew the album would be reissued. "It was just a matter of time," he explains.