Unbeknownst to many, for nearly three decades Shreveport was known as “The Record Center of the South.” The man who was single-handedly responsible for Shreveport earning that designation was Stan Lewis, the 2003 recipient of OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award given to a member of Louisiana’s music business community.
Born in Shreveport, Lewis was raised in a close-knit Italian family that ran a grocery store. A hustler as a youth, at the age of 19, immediately after World War II, he bought five 78 jukeboxes, all in black locations. Immediately, Lewis found out the biggest challenge for a jukebox operator servicing black locations was procuring new records for his machines. This sparked his interest in the retail and wholesale end of the record business.
In 1948, Lewis decided to pursue this interest, so he and his wife, Pauline, pooled their assets ($2,500) and purchased the struggling J&M Record Shop at 728 Texas Street, smack in the center of Shreveport’s black commercial district. After renaming the shop Stan’s, Pauline worked behind the counter while he continued to work in the family grocery. However, after meeting Leonard Chess (owner of Aristocrat, Chess and Checker Records), who was in town from Chicago with a trunk full of 78s, Lewis decided to increase his involvement in rhythm and blues.
In the 1940s, Texas Avenue was like Beale Street in Memphis or South Rampart Street in New Orleans, an avenue filled with clubs, tailor shops and businesses that catered to black clientele. Lewis began selling blues and spiritual records at a phenomenal rate, becoming one of the major retail outlets in the area, and one of the first to carry Specialty, RPM, Imperial, Trumpet, Miracle, Vee Jay, and of course the previously mentioned Chess imprints. Realizing the problems jukebox operators faced stocking the latest hits, he expanded and set up a one-stop and mail order operation. Lewis did exceptionally well, especially after buying airtime on the 50,000-watt giant KWKH (home of the Louisiana Hayride), Little Rock’s KWAY, and XERF in Del Rio, Texas. Suddenly he was handling orders from no less than 35 states.
By the early 1950s, he was also working as a Southern talent scout for several labels. Initially, Lewis was interested in getting Taylor Town’s Stick Horse Hammond—who’d earlier recorded a 78 for the J&M record shop—into the studio, but when he and Leonard Chess went looking for the one-legged blues guitarist, they were chased off by Hammond’s shotgun-toting boss! Studio time at KWKH was cheap in the evenings and Lewis was determined to make use of the situation, concentrating on the Louisiana Hayride’s roster and the black performers on Texas Avenue. He signed Sonny Boy Williamson (before he recorded for Trumpet), but the itinerant harp wizard left Shreveport before Lewis could get him in the studio. Eventually he placed Country Jim, Pine Bluff Pete and Jim Bledsoe on Specialty, steered Jimmy Newman to Dot, and recommended Imperial sign Slim Whitman.
Lewis’s by now best friend, Leonard Chess (Lewis named his son after Chess), benefited from most of Lewis’ discoveries. Lewis produced sides by Oklahoma/Texas bluesman Lowell Fulson that appeared on Checker, and rockabilly artists Bobby Sisco, Wayne Walker and Jack Ford, that appeared on Chess. In 1955, Lewis submitted a song by Shreveport songwriter, Fats Washington, “I’ll Be Home,” which became a hit for the Flamingoes and later Pat Boone. The following year he sent Chess a dub of “Suzie Q.” (named after Lewis’s daughter) by Dale Hawkins which shot up the charts. He also discovered a local television repair man, Oscar Willis, who Lewis aptly dubbed TV Slim. Slim’s “Flatfoot Sam” turned into a huge R&B hit on the Checker label. Chess reciprocated the efforts by giving Lewis more favorable terms on Chess and Checker products than other Southern distributors. By being able to sell Chess (then one of the strongest independent labels in the county) at a cheaper price than other distributors, Lewis was able to expand his distribution business into New Orleans, Dallas and Houston.
Lewis’ next step was to form his own record label, and he did just that in 1963, launching Jewel and signing Abbeville’s Bobby Charles. The first single was numbered 728, the same as the shop’s address on Texas Avenue. Jewel was soon followed by Paula and Ronn (named after Lewis’ younger brother). Lewis’ labels thrived thanks to hits by Toussaint McCall, the Uniques, Nat Stuckey, Bobby Powell, the Carter Brothers and John Fred and the Playboy Band, the latter responsible for the Number One hit, “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses.)”
Not one to forget his roots, by the early 1970s, Lewis’ labels had taken over from where Chess, Excello, Imperial and Duke left off, becoming America’s foremost producer in straight ahead blues and spiritual music. With masters pouring in from Chicago, Nashville, Muscle Shoals, Texas, New Orleans and of course his own studio, Lewis marketed new sounds by Lowell Fulson, Little Johnny Taylor, Rev. Willie Morganfield, Frank Frost, Little Eddie Lang, Wild Child Butler, Buster Benton, Bobby Rush, Ted Taylor and Jerry McCain, among others. He also purchased important Chicago blues masters from Cobra, Chief, JOB, Profile, Artistic, USA and Age. The old shop had been replaced by an expensive new building and Lewis’ mail order and distribution business thrived.
Lewis hit a bump in the late 1970s when black America’s tastes veered from authentic music to funk, disco and techno pop. Lewis tried to get his producers to adapt, but they were unable to come up with commercial combinations. Lewis had also expanded into video and opened several satellite stores around Shreveport, all which proved to be unprofitable. In the end he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Although the Texas Avenue store was leveled, by the late 1980s, Lewis was back on his feet, reactivating Ronn with reissues of previous glories, licensing masters to Europe, and releasing new recordings that appealed to Southern soul enthusiasts. Late in the millennium, Lewis sold all of his catalog to Emusic, who subsequently dealt them to Universal. Today, Jewel, Paula Ronn and the above mentioned Chicago masters are released on Fuel 2000 via an agreement with Universal.
Retirement has never appealed to Lewis and he was quick to form a new label, Suzie Q, which he still operates with his son Lenny and his daughter (Suzie). Together they continue to record, and promote Southern soul and blues.