Lewis was born in Indianapolis and grew up in an orphanage, eventually moving to a foster home in Detroit at the age of 12. When he was 14 years old, he ran away from home and began performing as a singer, eventually moving to New York. After spending some time on Mercury Records, he was persuaded by singer-songwriter Ritchie Adams to record a song he had co-written as a one-off for the smaller Beltone label.
This song was “Tossin’ ‘ ‘Turnin'” from the 1960s, a kinetic rave-up of R’n’B as restless as the insomnia described by Lewis in his lyrics, which exploded commercially in 1961. The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on July 10 this year, staying there for seven weeks – an unusually long reign in early chart history – and finally leading BillboardYear-end 100 hot for 1961. In 2018, it landed 36th Billboard‘s all-time Hot 100, fourth highest of any 60s song.
Lewis’s time in the mainstream was relatively short. After scoring another top 10 (“One Track Mind,” No. 9) as October, he only hit the Hot 100 twice more, and never made the top 40 again. “Tossin’ – “Turnin” has endured in cultural memory, however, largely because of its prominent use in two successful comedies of the 70s, both set in the early 1960s: American Graffiti (1973) and Animal House The song was also covered by acts ranging from the girl bands The Marvelettes and The Supremes to rockers Peter Criss and Joan Jett.
The singer spent the last four decades of his life in New Jersey, with his last years spent at the Forest Hill Healthcare Center in Newark. He continued to play live well in his 80s — although vision problems made it difficult, and he described himself as “virtually blind” to NJ.com in 2011. “It’s like Stevie (Wonder) said, “We all have this inner vision,”” he says. It helps a lot.
Lewis is survived by three children — Fonda Simmons, Marva Brooks and Zain Abdullah, née Zayne Lewis — as well as 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Abdullah tells Billboard that he is writing a father-son memoir, for which he has interviewed his father at length, and that there will be both a memorial and a tribute concert to Lewis, whom he began planning even before his father’s death. Artists interested in playing the tribute concert can register here.