Quick, what do the Steve Miller Band, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Frampton, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Donny Osmond, Milton Berle, Ringo Starr, Travis Tritt, Lance Armstrong, Wayne Newton and Tom Jones have in common? They have all benefited from the incredible talent of guitarist Kenny Lee Lewis.
Mr. Lewis took some time off during his tour with the Steve Miller Band, which stops at Wolf Trap on Wednesday, to talk about his musical life.
Question: Any relation to the great Jerry Lee Lewis?
Answer: Funny that you say that. I used to work with Billy Burnette, formerly in Fleetwood Mac. I was in Los Angeles, and Billy introduced me to Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry said, “You stole my name.” I said, “No, my parents hated your music.”
I showed him my license, and after he looked at it, Jerry Lee Lewis gave me a little blessing over my head and said, “OK, you can have my name then.”
Q: When did you first pick up a guitar?
A: I picked up a guitar in 1966 around the sixth grade. My brother was a folkie. It was a Sears Silvertone $40 nylon string guitar. I still have it.
Q: When and how did you come to join the Steve Miller Band?
A: In 1981, I started working on the “Abracadabra” record with Steve at Capitol Records with Gary Malabar, who I was in a band with at the time. Gary had played with Steve on drums.
Steve was looking for material. We sent him our eight demos hoping maybe he would cover one. He ended up taking all eight of them. We ended up co-writing and co-producing the whole album and went out on the tour in 1982 — 34 years now.
Q: You’re primarily a guitarist, but in SMB you play bass now?
A: When I met Steve, I was a studio bass player that played guitar as well. I was his guitarist for 28 years. I switched over to bass about six years ago when our bass player slipped off a ladder and broke his ankle in four places. We were right in the middle of the tour, so I went back to bass.
Q: Which SMB songs are your favorites to play?
A: “Fly Like an Eagle.” We do a long, extended arrangement of it now. I look forward to playing that every night. “The Joker” is also fun to play because the audience energy is so high.
Q: Your resume is impressive, from Bonnie Raitt to Eddie Money to Toto, The Doobie Brothers, Beach Boys, Meat Loaf and so many more. How do you have the time?
A: Some of those were sessions that I did as a studio bass player in LA in the 1980s. I played on so many of those records. Others are one-offs. Bonnie Raitt has sat in with us so many times [that] she is almost like a sister to me.
Q: Who are some of your favorite acts to play with?
A: There have been so many, it is hard to pick. Off the cuff, one of my favorites was playing with Les Paul in New York. Because Steve is Les Paul’s godson, we were able to play The Iridium club and sit in with him. I even had the opportunity to go to Les’ house and visit his basement, where he kept his guitars. That was an incredible experience.
Q: There are also some odd credits among the people you played with, like Wayne Newton, Boxer Roberto Duran and Milton Berle.
A: They are all legitimate credits. [laughs] I played on a radio show in Los Angeles, “The Mark & Brian Show.” It was Brian’s birthday, and we played at Royce Hall at UCLA at 6 a.m. Mark was blindfolded, and Tom Jones came out asking him questions. He would then guess who it was. Then we, as the house band, played “It’s Not Unusual” with Tom Jones. The next guy that came out was Wayne Newton. Kind of like the old “What’s My Line” TV show.
I played an after-Oscar party that had Milton Berle as the emcee, and Roberto Duran was sitting in on congas.
Q: You also played with both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, yes?
A: In 1993, we did Earth Day at the Hollywood Bowl. Paul said, “I want all the bands to come on and sing ‘Hey Jude’ with me at the end of the show. My wife played “Lucy in the Sky” in the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” film, so she knew Paul.
We were standing on the side of the stage. Paul looked over and saw us and called us over. So we walk out to his right, he turns to his left, and says, “Hey, Ringo, come out.” We gather to the center. It’s Ringo, Paul, my wife and me. Just then, the AP photographer took a photo. I have a copy of that.
Q: Are you the ultimate sideman?
A: Yes, I’m a sideman. But I do have my own records out and my own bands. I make a living there too but have never hit it big like Steve.
With the Steve Miller Band, I am a sideman. Working with Steve and bringing his catalog to the people in the world is an amazing experience.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Steve Miller Band with Matt Andersen
WHERE: Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Road Vienna, Virginia, 22182
WHEN: Wednesday, 8 p.m.
INFO: Tickets $35 to $60 by calling 877/965-3872 or visiting WolfTrap.org