Jona Lewie’s first taste of band life was when he was 17. He was known as plain old John Lewis then. The band, which was called The Corsairs (after the Ford Corsair Car), was a rhythm and blues group who had also backed Gene Vincent on Stage.
Lewie first played professionally in 1968 as a solo singer-songwriter, blues pianist and vocalist in the London circuit of blues and folk clubs such as 100 Club in Oxford street, Bunjies off Charing Cross Road, The Troubador in Putney and Les Cousins in Greek Street, Soho.
His first professional gig came about because Dave Brock, who went on to form Hawkwind a few years later, took Jona to a hippy dive in Charing Cross Road where Jona got up and walked over to a piano and started to pound some boogie-woogie whereupon he bought the house down. This experience acted as a catalyst which led him to try his hand at playing in front of people for money.
Later the following year Jona had gone to New York to record some blues, ragtime, and folk oriented piano and vocal tracks for the Nick Perles blues label Yazoo/Blue Goose. Lewie wrote all the titles and one of them was called “Sociology Rag” as he was still only a student studying for his London University Sociology degree.
On his return from the States Lewie was asked to join Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts by its leader Graham Hine. Lewie readily accepted this position as his academic studies were intensifying and he felt it would be easier to continue gigging as part of a band than to continue doing his solo gigs that would be more demanding of his time, nerves and mental energy with only one more year to go before his final exams.
However, he had also developed a friendship with the band because “JOHN LEWIS” and “Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts” had shared headline billing at a Twickenham Blues and Folk venue in London.
Most of the notes on the piano provided for Lewie by the promoter were either missing or badly out of tune and so the guys in the band helped out by clapping to the numbers which helped to make Lewie’s performance go down well with the audience.
Also, both Lewie and Hine had recorded in their own rights for the blues anthology album Gasoline on the Liberty record label and their friendship developed further.
Lewie’s blues piano playing was in demand and he backed Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup throughout his album “Roebuck Man” on United Artists along with Tom McGuiness of the Manfreds, Hughie Flint from McGuiness-Flint, Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle who in later years were successful as Gallagher and Lyle.
Lewie also played on many of the tracks on the Juke Boy Bonner album “Things Aint Right “ on the Liberty Record Label.
Lewie eventually missed doing vocals after becoming a band member and stopping his solo gigs. The day after he sat his final exams in June 1970, 9 months after he had joined, the band went fully professional and he started to sing again (as well as continuing as pianist.)
Lewie continued to write songs and wrote one on an accordion which he presented to the band. It became known as “Seaside Shuffle”. However it was felt to be not in keeping with the tone and nuance of their blues style. The boys decided to change the name of the band to “Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs” for this particular track, after it was deemed fit for single release by Rod Buckle at Sonet Records.
The record reached no. 2 in the UK charts a year after it was initially released, after Jonathan King’s UK Records bought the rights and re-released it (a year later), accompanied by a full promotional campaign.
Apparently, Jonathon King, who had just formed his own record label, UK Records, stumbled upon a dive of a club where the response to the track by the kids was phenomenal. This not only made him think it had ‘hit’ potential but also vindicated Sonet Records’ and Rod Buckle’s initial faith in the track a year earlier when, in fact, it did achieve some limited airplay on the coveted national Radio 1 station – which, however, wasn’t enough to break it into the national charts.
Before the success of the single, two key members of the band had already left and eventually Lewie also left in early 1973.
The Terry Dactyl band also seemed to disintegrate and Jonathan King’s invitation to Lewie – having heard some of his demos – to record an album was declined because Lewie felt he wasn’t ready to record a whole album.
Lewie became a bit of a solo cult artist a year or two later when some of his singles for Sonet Records such as “Piggy Back Sue” (apparently a favourite of Jools Holland because of the boogie-woogie element) and “The Swan” were regularly appearing in the Alternative ‘Time Out’ Singles Chart of the then popular and respected weekly magazine ‘Time Out’.
In the meantime underground D.J. Charlie Gillett regularly featured these tracks on his weekly cult alternative radio show on BBC Radio 1’s “Honky Tonk”.
By now “JONA LEWIE “ (no longer John Lewis) joined a band called The Jive Bombers and at one gig in 1975 shared billing with the 1 0 1’ers. At the gig Lewie was waylaid for a few hours and his band had to go home without him. When Lewie surfaced he would have been stranded but was relieved to find the 1 0 1’ers were still about and offered to give him a lift back to London whereupon in the back of the van Joe Strummer, the leader, exclaimed how much he loved “The Swan”!
The Jive Bombers had an offer of a recording contract from Ted Carol’s Chiswick/Ace label but Lewie turned it down as he felt the band weren’t quite ready.
The band consisted of some high-powered players notably Thumper Thompson on bass who went on to be a key musician in the Darts who made several hit records, and Martin Stone who was the leading light in the cult band Stones Masonry and had been a member of Chilli Willie and the Red Hot Peppers.
Jona left the band in 1976 and continued to record for Sonet Records whereupon he scored more hits with his self-penned Cherry Ring, and Come Away embarking on TV appearances particularly in Belgium and Holland.
In the meantime the Brett Marvin band had reformed and continued to record for Sonet Records but, despite a series of single releases in the U.K. in the 70’s, weren’t able to duplicate the success of “Seaside Shuffle”.
By 1977 Jona Lewie had signed to Stiff Records whose groundbreaking approach had already by then made them a legendary label in the Music Business. They were responsible for the very first Punk record to enter the U.K. charts (“New Rose” by The Damned) and were radical in their approach to the industry.
Jona immediately embarked on his first ever solo album which took over 9 months to record, which, for that period in the history of popular music, was considered exceptionally long.
The album was called “On The Other Hand There’s A Fist” and the original release in 1978 came to enjoy cult status in the USA whose magazine ‘Billboard’ showed it got on to a lot of underground radio play lists. It never charted partly due to Stiff Records’ ultimately being unable to cut a deal with U.S. Record Labels, in particular with a Major label called Arista.
With Jona’s album just completed by the summer of 1978, Jona was invited to take part in the infamous Be Stiff ’78 Train Tour by Dave Robinson who had signed Jona to the label. The Tour travelled from venue to venue throughout the country; not by road transport, that was the norm, but by railway!!
Joining Jona were Lene Lovich who scored a big hit with Lucky Number in 1979, Rachel Sweet who scored a minor hit in 1979, Mickey Jupp and Wreckless Eric who had taken just a weekend to record his album for the tour as opposed to Jona’s 9 months!
After their extensive tour throughout Britain and Ireland Dave Robinson then took the package to New York where the artists played The Bottom Line twice nightly for a week but without Micky Jupp who refused to fly.
1979 saw Jona Lewie trying to get his former mates from Brett Marvin a deal at Stiff Records that eventually led to a release on a Stiff subsidiary label but the track failed to make an impression.
In 1980 Stiff Records released You’ll Always Find Him In The Kitchen At Parties and Stop The Cavalry both of which became big hits in various countries throughout the world for Jona. Various other titles of Jona’s also became hits in various countries notably Louise, Big Shot Momentarily, I Think I’ll Get My Haircut and The Seed That Always Died.
Jona stayed with Stiff Records until their demise when Dave Robinson was forced to liquidate the label in 1987. Jona became the longest serving act at Stiff and, even out of such luminaries as Madness, Elvis Costello, and Ian Dury, was one of its most successful artists in Europe.
Apart from serious traveling from time to time and appearing in media events, and particularly also at Christmas time, owing to the great success of Stop The Cavalry, Jona has continued to indulge his hobby and love of ‘tinkering around’ in his studio. The studio was built as a state of the art complex in 1984 and stayed with technology. Referring to his MySpace page there is talk that he will definitely consider releasing an album of his material, although he is mindful of the great difficulties the music business now finds itself in.
Based on papers from a TVUniversity Research Project – 2007