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The Lewis Sisters

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Helen and Kay Lewis', two sisters from Michigan, names cropped up on Motown albums and some single releases in the '60s, such as Gladys Knight & the Pips' "Just Walk in My Shoes." But their careers didn't begin at Motown, rather, in the '50s as jazz singers and songwriters. After high school, Kay attended Michigan State University and earned a degree in music; Helen graduated from UCLA with the same degree. In 1955, Kay, whose primary instrument is guitar, moved to California to join her sister Helen who plays piano. They befriended jazz pianist Les McCann in 1958 and he got them a deal with Liberty Records where they recorded a jazz album entitled Way out...Far. McCann played piano on the session and Paul Horn played alto sax. Next came a few sides for Chess/Checker records, including "Come on Let's Stroll," which found its way onto the Checker LP Hits That Jumped in 1959. A year later they cut what Kay describes as a weird album for Verve Records. The Russ Garcia produced Voices, Strings and Percussions was quite odd, Garcia used the sisters' voices like violins on the 1960 album of Tchaikovsky songs. They met Hal Davis in California and through Davis' partner Marc Gordon, got them inked to Motown in 1963 as recording artists, but their only releases as artists came two years later on the company's VIP subsidiary. "He's an Oddball" b/w "By Some Chance" and "You Need Me" b/w "Moonlight on the Beach" were good records, different from their early jazz and voice albums, more mainstream. 11 days before the release on their final single, Kay's daughter Little Lisa emerged on VIP as well with "Hang on Bill" b/w "Puppet on a String" (August 20, 1965). The dynamic sisters appeared with Chris Clark on Clark's November, 1965, single "Do Right Baby, Do Right." Nothing hit with much authority and no more recordings were issued. Helen and Kay's songs were being snapped up mostly as album cuts by other artists including the Miracles' "Baby, Baby" and Edwin Starr and Blinky's LP Just We Two which featured "Can't We Be Strangers Again" and "I See a Rainbow." "This Love Starved Heart of Mine," a song they wrote for Marvin Gaye, became popular in Europe but didn't get unearthed until after the singer's untimely demise; according to Kay, they originally wrote the song for Al Wilson, Wilson recorded it but it never came out, Hal Davis and Marc Gordon tried to get him signed to Motown but couldn't swing a deal, so the soulful singer signed with Jerry Fuller's Rocky Road Records where he hit with "Show and Tell." In 1969, Helen and Kay reunited with Les McCann for a project he was doing with Roberta Flack, the resulting Comments album features the sisters' songs. McCann recorded their "Universal Prisoner" and got much acclaim for doing so. Kay stayed active in the business, with her husband Bob Smith; the couple built a recording studio in 1985. Though the sisters wrote most of their songs together, each also had songs published with different collaborators. The two appeared in a cameo spot in Lady Sings the Blues playing two has-been singers. When Britisher Ian Levine went on his record-every-artist-who-had-anything-to-do-with-Motown mission, he didn't missed the Lewis Sisters and cut them on "Baby, Baby," "Dancing With Danger," and "Just Walk in My Shoes." Like other Motown artists, the Lewis' appreciated the chance to record again but reiterated what others have said: "we never got paid for those sessions." The violent earthquake that hit southern California in 1994 severely damaged Kay and Smith's studio and caused many to leave the area, including Helen Lewis who relocated to Sedona, AZ, with her husband. The sisters no longer write together, but collectively and with others they each have about 84 songs registered with BMI. Helen retired from music and had long since returned to school and earned a Ph.D in Psychology, she's now Mrs. Helen Mastor, Ph.D. Kay's in for life; she teaches music and still records songs with her husband in hopes of placing them with someone. Her daughter Lisa didn't have any hits at Motown, but later scored a big one with Sergio Mendez as Lisa Miller. ~ Andrew Hamilton

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