As an electronic instrument pioneer, and one of the designers of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, Don Lewis had an irreversible impact on the trajectory and sound of popular music. On November 6th, 2022, Mr. Lewis peacefully passed away at the age of 81. It is an honor to help remember him now.

Lewis majored in Electronics Engineering, but his foundation as a musician and composer of symphonic works infused his technical innovations with a musicality often lacking in other digital instruments that began entering the marketplace in the late-1970s and 1980s. That Lewis worked in the Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist in the early 1960s, and was stationed for four years in Roswell, New Mexico, only adds to his futuristic mystique. In fact, his invention of the Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO) multiple instrument controller inspired (and predated by ten years) the creation of MIDI.

Lewis worked with superstars such as Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendes, the Beach Boys, and Michael Jackson. Lewis also created voices used on many synthesizers, including the iconic Yamaha DX7. But, in 1984, he was actually picketed by the Musicians Union, AFM Local 6 due to fear of the technological advancements that he promoted.

An African American male, Lewis’ innovations have largely been overlooked, much in the same way that the contributions of other groundbreaking electronic music experimentalists like Bernie Worrell, Yvette Janine Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Julius Eastman, Butch Morris, Sun Ra, et al., seem to be routinely minimized or ignored. Even Willie Mitchell’s prototypical “electric timbales” loop (actually a Mica Sonic electronic Congas, Bongos, and Wood Block) on Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” (1973) rarely gets the credit it deserves for its early melding of electronics and soul, a sound that has gone on to define popular music in the 21st century.

That one of Lewis’ main contemporaries and competitors, the great Roger Linn, was awarded a Grammy Award for Lifetime Technical Achievement in 2011, and Lewis’ own collaborator on the Roland 808, Ikutaro Kakehashi, also received the same award in 2013, seems to speak to this omission.

After having failed commercially, many 808s were discarded and went on to become affordable, second-hand machines. That they were only resurrected by early rap architects, such as Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy, and NWA, possesses an almost cosmic poetry.

Any time a bass note distinctively rumbles the chassis of a passing car, or a dance floor rattles and vibrates beneath our feet, we bear witness to Don Lewis’ genius living on. He is eternally behind the scenes; an “invisible” trailblazer that gave – and continues to give – a voice to stars.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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