Webster Samuel Lewis, 59, arranged, composed music for famous artists

November 27, 2002|By Scott Banerjee | Scott Banerjee,SUN STAFF

Webster Samuel Lewis, a Baltimore-born music arranger and composer who worked with such recording artists as Michael Jackson, Barry White, Tom Jones, Herbie Hancock and Harry Belafonte, died of pneumonia and diabetes Nov. 20 at his home in Berryville, N.Y. He was 59.

Raised in East Baltimore, Mr. Lewis was encouraged by his family to take up music at a young age. In the early 1960s, he performed at Pennsylvania Avenue clubs, concerts with the Blue Ribbon Tea Association Orchestra at Dunbar High School and Sunday services at First Baptist Church on Caroline Street.

He was a 1961 graduate of City College, where he excelled in basketball and track. Mr. Lewis earned his bachelor's degree in sociology in 1965 from what was then Morgan State College, where he was also a founding member of Iota Phi Theta fraternity.

"In a time when people from East Baltimore rarely left this city, Webster was proud of the fact that he ventured to Boston to further his career," said longtime friend Jim Davenport of Baltimore. Boston was home to the New England Conservatory of Music and composer Gunther Schuller. Mr. Lewis earned a master's degree in music composition there in 1970, with Mr. Schuller as his mentor.

That foundation allowed Mr. Lewis to tailor a versatile career that encompassed numerous elements of the music industry, but it was his arranging ability that defined his genius, Mr. Davenport said.

"He was especially talented in mixing the various elements of the orchestra," he said. "But he also knew the business of music and creating something that could sell."

Others with whom he was involved in arranging or producing included Gladys Knight and the Pips, Thelma Houston, Lola Falana and the Jacksons.

As an artist, he recorded six solo albums for CBS Records.

He later created original music for feature films Beat Street, My Tutor, Body and Soul and The Hearse, and television films Booker, Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Sky Is Gray. With a New York agency, he was involved in composing and producing commercials for a variety of national companies.

As a conductor, he led Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra while in Brazil. "He was all those talents wrapped into one person," said Mr. Lewis' wife of 15 years, the former Monica Magnus.

"In contrast to how serious he was about his music, he was also hilarious and lovable," Mr. Davenport said.

Mr. Lewis prided himself on encouraging and mentoring young black artists in their music careers.

"From the time he arrived in Boston, he was especially proud of helping blacks enter the Junior Pops Orchestra, as well as get on television," said Mr. Davenport.

He also taught jazz voice and arrangement classes at Howard University in Washington as a visiting professor from 1995 to 1999. Mr. Lewis also held a second master's degree, from Boston College, which he earned in 1968.

"He never forgot his roots," said Del. Clarence Davis, an East Baltimore Democrat who grew up and attended elementary school in the area with Mr. Lewis. He recalled how his friend and other successful performers returned for a celebration honoring their early instructors -- James and Henrietta Holliman, who operated a neighborhood music academy out of their rowhouse, charging 50 cents a lesson, or less for the neediest.

"Webster came from New York" and played with the others "in one slam-bang jazz session" for the Hollimans, the delegate said. "Webster even brought a gospel jazz choir he had trained at Howard University," he said.

Mr. Lewis also visited Baltimore jazz spots in the 1970s and 1980s and jammed with the musicians. "He never got paid for it," Mr. Davis said. "It was for the love of the music."

Services will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church of Pimlico, 5301 Beaufort Ave.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Lewis is survived by a son, Webster Courtney Lewis Jr. of Baltimore; a daughter, Yana Lewis of New York City; and a sister, Sheila Grimes of Baltimore. A previous marriage to the former Toya Brown ended in divorce.

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