A low-frills bar inside a south Minneapolis house, the Lux Lounge can only be identified by a window sign that says guns are banned inside. It usually takes someone who hung out there back in the ’70s and ’80s to point you to it.
Pierre Lewis, who performs there every Sunday night, is one of those people. Now, music collectors far and wide are pointing to Lewis as another hidden gem.
After setting up his keyboards at the Lux last Sunday, the 55-year-old R&B vet killed time by thumbing through photos on his phone. There were recent shots from China and South Africa, where he performed as a member of the Commodores. A couple of ’90s pictures showed him working as a lounge act in Miami. And from the ’70s, he flashed a shot of a barely post-pubescent Prince and Morris Day smirking into the camera.
“I’m thinking we need to cut Prince some kind of check for this record,” Lewis said after putting the phone away, “but I haven’t really talked to him since we were kids.”
The record in question is “The Lewis Connection,” a dust-covered 1979 disco and funk mash-up by Pierre and his brother Andre that was the impetus for last year’s popular compilation “Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979.”
Local label Secret Stash originally wanted to reissue the entire album but balked, for the same reason that copies of the record have sold for $1,000 on eBay: Prince plays on one (and only one) of its tracks.
Prince’s lawyers are known to sue over even the most innocuous usage of his royal name. A Chicago record company with as much hipster cachet and broader distribution than Secret Stash has taken up the cause, though.
“Anytime collectors are paying as much for a record as they were this one, it attracts our attention,” said Jon Kirby, director of A&R and research at the Numero Music Group, which reissued “The Lewis Connection” last month with fanfare from Pitchfork.com and other music media.
He said the label is not afraid of getting on Prince’s bad side.
“If you’re snapping a family photo at Disney World and Prince happens to walk by in the background, would he be able to tell you that you can’t show the photo to anyone? That’s about the equivalent to his involvement on this record.”
Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to recognize Prince on the slow-swaying love song “Got to Be Something Here.” He plays a generic rhythm guitar part and is one of several background vocalists on the track, which is more a showpiece for his future bassist Sonny Thompson, delivering a solid Stevie Wonder impression on lead vocals.
Still, it’s Prince’s name in the liner notes (as Prince Rogers Nelson) that made the album a collector’s item. It’s believed to be the oldest surviving record to feature the future megastar.
Only 1,000 copies were printed of “The Lewis Connection,” funded by a car-accident claim Lewis and his brother won. He painfully recalled that a decade or two ago his sister threw out a box full of records stored at their mother’s house. He held onto a handful of copies that he sold in recent years for the $1,000 asking price.
Whether or not he sees much money off the reissues, Lewis said, “I’m just excited that people are finally going to hear it.”
As teenagers, the Lewis brothers — Andre, two years younger, played guitar to Pierre’s keyboards — used to take the bus from St. Paul to Minneapolis to rehearse with the musicians who would trademark the Minneapolis Sound a decade later. Jimmy Jam actually replaced Pierre in the band Flyte Tyme (precursor to the Time). Both Lewis siblings also played with Thompson in his mid-’70s band the Family.
It was that group that recorded “Got to Be Something Here” at Minneapolis’ famed Sound 80 Studio, circa 1976. Pierre recalled that Prince had a falling out with his band at the time, Grand Central Station, and was trying to get work.
“We really didn’t need him,” Lewis insisted, laughing at the irony. He remembered that Prince borrowed a guitar for the session, as he would do a year or two later with one of Lewis’ instruments.
“That’s my keyboard you hear on ‘Soft & Wet,’ ” claimed Lewis, speaking of the first single from Prince’s 1978 major-label debut. “I loaned it to him and had to finally go get it from him. He wouldn’t give it back.”
“Got to Be Something Here” sat on the shelf for two years until the Lewises decided to bundle it with the other tracks on “The Lewis Connection,” pieced together from sessions that were often helmed by budding studio guru David Rivkin (a k a David Z, who was the brother of Prince drummer Bobby Z and later engineered much of Prince’s best work).
“I always thought there was some great stuff on that record,” Rivkin said after one of Prince’s Dakota gigs last month. “I’m glad somebody is finally putting it out.”
The opening cut, “Get Up,” is a “Funkytown”-like disco romp that was included in the “Twin Cities Funk & Soul” anthology. The other five tracks range from the horns-blasting funk workout “Higher” to the breezy, poppy, Earth, Wind & Fire-like instrumental “Dynamic Duo” to the spacey closer, a jam named for Morris Day’s pet poodle (“Mr. G”).
There’s only one update on the album: It’s now titled “The Lewis Connection,” instead of the misspelled “Conection” that appeared on the original cover. Legend was that the band didn’t notice the typo in time, but Lewis said it was intentional — “just to be weird and stand out.”
Although it never earned much sales or radio play, the album “was a good calling card to get us gigs,” Lewis said.
The Lewis Connection performed for about two years before splintering. Andre Lewis wound up moving to Nashville, where he still works as a musician, while Pierre bounced around until he returned permanently to the Twin Cities six years ago. He lived in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Indianapolis and worked for everyone from KC & the Sunshine Band to British soul-rock singer Joss Stone.
“I kept working, that was the main thing,” said Lewis, who has three sons and now four grandchildren.
His full-time gig with the Commodores came nearly three years ago. Lionel Richie is long gone, but the group plays many overseas dates, casino shows and corporate gigs with original co-vocalist Walter Orange and two other members from the group’s heyday era (see: “Brick House,” “Nightshift,” “Three Times a Lady”).
“I’m seeing parts of the world I’d have never seen, and I’m playing music that you can tell makes people feel good,” Lewis happily reported.
Almost an exact flip side to his life with the Commodores — except for the part about making people happy — are the weekly gigs at the Lux Lounge, a far less glamorous corner of the world that Lewis has seen plenty of.
Known as the Spruce Lounge when he first played there, the bar, its small, checkered dance floor and the rest of its decor (or, more specifically, lack of decor) remain unchanged. That’s part of why he loves it.
“The memories are just kind of built into the woodwork for me here,” he said.
For the past year, he has made a point of returning home from his weekend Commodores gigs to make the 5 p.m. start time every Sunday with his new local group, the New Experience Band. The shows usually include a soul food buffet and attract a packed house (literally a “house”). Most of the patrons are close in age to Lewis, and show up dressed to the nines and ready to sing along.
Last week, the offerings included everything from Marvin Gaye, Maze and Gap Band classics to a sultry R. Kelly tune and the 1999 hit that seems to be the unofficial anthem of these gigs, Mel Waiters’ “Hole in the Wall” (“people dancing and drinking, and no one wants to leave ... I had my best time y’all at the hole in the wall”).
“I think, like the rest of us, he just has a good time being here,” lead singer Allen Hudson III said of Lewis. Like most of the patrons at the Lux last Sunday, Hudson did not know about the modest buzz around the “Lewis Connection” reissue. That was fine by Lewis.
“I’m tickled so many people have taken an interest in the record,” Lewis said, “but I’m doing fine with or without it.”
Weekly gig: Sundays with New Experience Band, 5-8 p.m., Lux Lounge, 3836 4th Av. S., Mpls., $5, 612-824-5431.
Album reissue: Order “The Lewis Connection” via www.NumeroGroup.com.
Sample tracks: Hear some at startribune.com/music.