When Andre Lewis passed away in January 2012, the obituaries could’ve led with accounts of his time playing with Frank Zappa, Buddy Miles, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson throughout the ’70s – enough work to put him front and center among the era’s more notable genre-hopping sidemen. But cult followings have a way of eclipsing big-name associations, and Lewis was and remains more prominently remembered for being a driving force in not one but two of the most undervalued, overlooked funk acts of the 1970s: Maxayn and Mandré.
Not that he was completely anonymous. That’s him, for instance, on childhood friend Buddy Miles’ 1970 LP Them Changes, snaking up through the spiritual heart-stab of Neil Young’s “Down by the River” to coax out the liquid tremble of a head-swimming clavinet solo. That same sound is there on the first track of the first Labelle album, skulking in with percussive authority like a cartoon burglar on “Morning Much Better,” going toe-to-toe with Patti’s fiery lead and making each other sound stronger in the process.
And in the run-up to Johnny Guitar Watson’s later-career metamorphosis from seminal-if-underheard blues lifer to funk crossover hitmaker, Lewis helmed two Watson LPs, 1973’s Listen and 1975’s I Don’t Want to Be Alone, Stranger, that served as prototypes for Watson’s ensuing flashy, polished, pimp-hatted persona and introduced him to the hi-tech production techniques that would make him a new man in the late ’70s. “My name is Guitar Watson,” Lewis recalled Watson introducing himself in Vincent Bakker’s Watson bio The Gangster of Love, “and I’m gonna call you Studio Lewis.”
Studio Lewis, as it happened, had a band of his own in the works for a couple years, and their reputation had already preceded them by the time members of Maxayn entered the studio for the Listen sessions. Maxayn was named for former Ikettes member Maxayn Lewis, Andre’s wife and lead singer of a group that was meant to represent a new rock/soul crossover venture for Southern rock mothership Capricorn Records.
Maxayn’s self-titled 1972 debut featured two Rolling Stones covers – Let It Bleed bookends “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” respectively psychedelicized and taken to church. And even originals like the bottom-heavy funk cut “Trying for Days” and the drifting if-I-can’t-be-your-lover ballad “Let Me Be Your Friend” didn’t sound out of place on the same label that housed the Allmans. Early response was promising – in the May 13, 1972 issue of Billboard, soul columnist Julian Coleman compared Maxayn Lewis to “sort of a cross between Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack” – but that attention-getting comparison that never really carried through to similar name recognition. (Stylistically, a nod to Chaka Khan and Rufus might be more in order – if only in retrospect, since their first LP was still a year in the future.)
What success Maxayn achieved came a bit sideways, in that their only appearance in any Top 40 chart was notching #35 in 1973 with an Impressions cover, “Check Out Your Mind”, that had hit #3 on the same chart three years previous. Thankfully, this modest success was enough to get them an appearance on Soul Train, but it’s a fascinating one, considering the post-performance interview.
When Don Cornelius approaches Maxayn Lewis, she’s radiant and giddy as she appears when she’s singing, good-naturedly rolling with Don’s quips (“Why’d they have to name the group after you?” “They just wanted to! It wasn’t my decision.”) And something interesting happens when she introduces the rest of the band: guitarist Hank Redd nods and beams confidently, and drummer Emry Thomas affects a cool, heavy-lidded “yeah, that’s me” brow-raise. But when she introduces Andre Lewis, he cradles his bass to his chest and gives off a shy sort of smile, answering Don’s questions with quiet, youthful hesitation. “I do most of the… uh, producing, on the records, and… y’know,” he manages, punctuating it with a nervous chuckle.
“We had some friends that told us they had thousands of our records just sitting in the warehouse, and they weren’t moving them out. So we went over and commandeered some of them, and got them sent out to people and did it on our own.”
It’s hard to tell if Andre Lewis really was more comfortable outside of the spotlight or if his thoughts were just elsewhere. Either way, it didn’t help convince the label to push particularly hard with the record. Mindful, the LP that “Check Out Your Mind” appeared on, was underpromoted – a fate that would also befall their subsequent (and final) 1974 album Bail Out for Fun!. According to Maxayn Lewis herself in a 2012 interview for soulmusic.com, Warner Brothers’ distribution arm was slow to release album copies in markets where their music was starting to gain radio traction. Eventually they had to pull off a little DIY side operation: “We had some friends [at Warner Brothers] that told us they had thousands of our records just sitting in the warehouse, and they weren’t moving them out. So we went over and commandeered some of them, and got them sent out to people and did it on our own.”
The usual reasons typically given by labels for why albums don’t get that push were thrown at Maxayn: that they were too uncommercial and too hard to categorize. (Maxayn Lewis suspects their refusal to sign with the same talent agency owned by Capricorn co-founder Phil Walden didn’t help things any.) Whatever it was, their lack of success seems to have little to do with their music itself, which benefited from both Maxayn and Andre’s free-flowing musical inspiration as songwriting partners and Andre’s enthusiasm for the rapid developments in increasingly mainstream synthesizer technology.
Maybe the best song on Bail Out for Fun!, an otherwise simple ballad titled “Cried My Last Tear,” pulls some neat tricks under Maxayn’s feather-in-a-hurricane lead vocals. There’s a bassline that seemingly transforms from electric bass to analog synth with an abrupt knob-tweak, and a backdrop of keyboards that builds from a delicate piano intro to a wall of sound – from organ to Moog to Mellotron, all complementing each other even as the lines blur between the harmonies.
The back of Bail Out for Fun! features messages from every member of the band, but Andre’s includes a line that’s both the most cryptic and the most telling: “While a lot of things change and pass, Maxayn will change but not pass.” What seems on the surface like a simple declaration of artistic evolution and sustained permanence would, three years later, seem like a preview of the strangeness yet to come later that decade.
When visiting Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff’s TONTO – a room-sized conglomeration of synthesizers – Andre was heard to remark: “in a couple years this will be in a little box you can carry around… it doesn’t need to be this big.”
The Lewises would spend much of 1975-1976 in a holding pattern, albeit one that proved to be filled with opportunity: Maxayn Lewis hit the road with Donna Summer, while Andre found himself in the employ of Frank Zappa as a touring and session recording replacement for George Duke. Despite the fact that Andre couldn’t read sheet music, Zappa brought him on in part because Andre had a strong ear for memorization, and in part because Zappa was a big Johnny Guitar Watson fan. With the additional opportunity to work in a context outside the typical demands of big business top 40, Andre had a chance to stretch out in an unconventional, frequently conceptual setting – though as fate had it, his presence as a backup vocalist on two of Zappa’s biggest mockeries of disco culture (1976’s “Disco Boy” and 1979’s “Dancin’ Fool”) coincided with the chance the genre gave him to explore another identity.
Andre had always been infatuated with synthesizers, but in a way that played to a sort of Popular Mechanics tinkerer/early adopter fascination. In the early ‘70s, when Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff assembled TONTO – a room-sized conglomeration of synthesizers of every make imaginable, made famous by Stevie Wonder’s stretch of classic LPs from 1972-1974 – and installed it in the Record Plant, the Lewises paid it a visit. Andre was heard to remark: “in a couple years this will be in a little box you can carry around… it doesn’t need to be this big.” He was right, of course, but what that portability and innovation meant for his further musical exploits was wrapped up in a new take on the perceived anonymity of a studio lifer.
As Andre returned to the studio after touring with Zappa, his musical focus began to shift: instead of backing a band fronted by Maxayn, he’d front his own group – just not as himself. While trying to find this new direction, Andre and Maxayn independently brainstormed up the idea of a “Masked Marauder,” a musical sci-fi anti-hero with a biting sense of humor and an ear for space-age weirdness.
The self-titled debut of the enigmatic Mandré, released in 1977, is half-reinvention of who Andre Lewis wanted to become, half-reassertion of who Andre Lewis was: a space-age cartoon-funk revamp of “Money (That’s What I Want)” – Motown’s first hit, retooled for a new future – shared a side with a cover of Frank Zappa’s “Dirty Love” as a nod to his prior employer. Sprawling, multi-part prog-disco virtuoso epics in progress – “Solar Flight (Opus I)” (a minor disco hit and favorite at David Mancuso’s Loft) and “Third World Calling (Opus II)” – followed a leadoff cut, “Keep Tryin’,” that thematically mirrored “Trying for Days” from Maxayn’s debut LP five years previous. And even through the chrome-helmeted unreality, one deep-cut slow jam, “Wonder What I’d Do,” stood out as a genuinely moving love ballad amidst all the upper-atmosphere synthesized stargazing and liquid-rubber funk. Backup vocalists aren’t individually credited on the LP, but it’s hard not to hear Maxayn’s presence somewhere amidst the harmonies on the line “wonder what I’d do without you.”
Maxayn woke up one day to find Roger Linn asking Andre for help tweaking this new device of his, the LinnDrum, to work right.
In promoting the first Mandré LP, marketers took note of the resemblance between Andre Lewis’s alter-ego-driven synth grooves and those of the era’s big standard-bearer and declared him “funkier than Parliament.” The competitive branding didn’t really stick, and the masked persona – semi-anonymous as it was – stirred up cynical speculation that it was less a high-concept persona and more a stunt meant to hide an unphotogenic artist.
The label played up the anonymity angle to the point where they got costume designer Bill Whitten – later the creator of Michael Jackson’s sequined white glove – to actually construct a mask for Andre to wear in promotional and live appearances. But he was still very much a studio artist, and despite some studio selections from 1978’s sophomore release Mandré Two appearing on a tour-promo compilation, Motown’s Magical Spring Tour!, little information actually exists as to the extent of his live performances behind the mask.
In fact, despite a presence on the Motown roster, Mandré wasn’t as widely promoted as his peers on the label like the Commodores or Rick James – another case of genre-crossing novelty that couldn’t find easy purchase in increasingly stratified markets. As funky and forward-thinking as the music was, Mandré’s last two albums for Motown – Two and 1979’s M3000 – were practically non-entities on the pop, R&B, or dance charts, despite sounding uncannily prescient of developments in all those styles.
By 1982, Mandré had receded back into session man work, having severed his ties with Motown and releasing his album 4 through his own label FutureGroove. Even then, most of the inventory was destroyed when a false alarm set off the sprinkler system in the warehouse the LPs were being stored. If you open the 6/5/82 issue of Billboard and squint a bit, you can see a miniscule independently placed ad promoting this release, featuring a stamp-sized photo of Andre propping up a keyboard with one hand and his now-vestigial helmet with the other. He almost looks like a footnote.
Or maybe a secret weapon. Because if Motown didn’t exactly know what to do with him, electronics companies sure did. As early adopters of practically every new piece of synthesizer technology and digital music equipment to make its way to the hills of Los Angeles, Andre and Maxayn would often host parties at their house that doubled as product demos, drawing the attention of everyone from Return to Forever pillars Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke to blues stars like Taj Mahal and their old cohort Johnny Guitar Watson.
Eventually, the Lewis house became a sort of music lab, with Andre taking on the role as a sort of field tester for Roland and other purveyors of synthesized instrumentation. Maxayn mentions in a Wax Poetics remembrance of Andre that she’d wake up one day to find Roger Linn asking Andre for help tweaking this new device of his to work right – a machine that would come to be known as the LinnDrum, the backbone of pop music in the 1980s.
The rest of Lewis’s story can be pieced together with other echoes of influence, ones that picked up his mantle of technologically focused production. While New Wave, synthpop, and Kraftwerk were acknowledged ingredients of Detroit’s burgeoning techno movement in the early ’80s, regular spins on The Electrifying Mojo’s radio show – 1979 single “Freakin’s Fine” being a frequent selection – made sure that Lewis’s own digital obsessions translated just as readily. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Rhythm Trax House Party Style” gave a sampled “Solar Flight” a spot in a DJ mini-mix alongside Afrika Bambaataa and Man Parrish, Lewis’s cult hit reworked into the fabric of a hip-hop blockbuster album.
In 1999 Jay Dee, later known as J Dilla, showed off his developing production eclecticism by drawing from “M3000 (Opus VI)” for the wigged-out electro pulse of Q-Tip’s Amplified track “Go Hard.” And, most notorious of all, the concept of a hi-tech dance-music artist operating behind a shiny, opaque visor preceded and debatably inspired Daft Punk. Those sounds and ideas were familiar parts of the musical lexicon by the time they’d been adapted from Mandré’s catalog, but it’s only fair – he had an underheralded role in making those sounds familiar in the first place.