Jeannie Lewis is one of the most enigmatic and expressive, yet underrated singers Australia has ever produced. At the expense of detracting from Lewis's redoubtable talents, try to imagine a cross between UK vocalists Sandy Denny and Kate Bush for at least one reference point. Always able to adapt her emotional and dramatic voice to suit a range of moods and styles, whether it be folk, rock, blues, opera or avant-jazz, Lewis was a fine interpreter of other people's material.
During the 1960s, Lewis sang in folk clubs and with the Ray Price Jazz Quintet and the Alan Lee Jazz Quintet. She appeared on the Ray Price Jazz Quintet album Spectrum (1971). One of Lewis's early bands was the 1970 Sydney-based outfit Gypsy Train which comprised Bobby Gebert (piano), Kydric Shaw (guitar), Terry Wilson (vocals), John Helman (bass; ex-Levi Smith's Clefs) and Daryl McKenzie (drums). In 1972, Lewis sang the title song to Jim Sharman's debut feature film Shirley Thompson Versus the Aliens. A year later, Lewis issued her debut album, Free Fall Through Featherless Flight. With music arranged and directed by Michael Carlos (ex-Tully, Levi Smith's Clefs), the album included a breathtaking array of material like Graham Lowndes' `Till Time Brings Change', Gulliver Smith and Jeremy Noone's `It's Up to You' and Billy Green's adaptation of the Dylan Thomas poem `Do Not Go Gentle'.
Backing musicians included Carlos (moog, organ, harpsichord), Mike Wade (guitar), Mike Reid (guitar), Ken Firth (bass; ex-Tully), Jamie McKinley (piano), Greg Henson (drums), Alan Lee (percussion), Marcia Hines (backing vocals), Shayna Stewart (backing vocals; ex-Tully), The Fidelio String Quartet and a wind section. The album won the Australian Radio Record Award for the Best Australian LP of 1974, despite receiving no radio support whatsoever. Lewis's second album, the in-concert set Looking Backwards to Tomorrow (in and out of concert), featured the singer's renditions of songs by Ray Davies (`Celluloid Heroes'), Dory Previn (`Scared to Be Alone'), Stephen Sondheim (`Ladies Who Lunch'), Graham Lowndes (`The House is Burning') and the Rev. Gary Davies (`Cocaine Blues' with backing provided by The Foreday Riders). `Celluloid Heroes'/`Rocelli Kaharunta' was issued as a single. American label Mainstream issued the album in the USA.
Lewis's most adventurous album, the double set Tears of Steel & the Clowning Calaveras recreated her series of concerts held in November 1975. The initial inspiration for the project was the poem Tears of Steel by Chilean writer Pablo Nerunda, and the Mexican Day of the Dead (All Soul's Day) festivities in which people paraded `Calaveras' (mock skeletons) in a burlesque parody of life and death. Once again, Lewis and musical director Carlos drew on an eclectic and sometimes astonishing range of songs encompassing Phil Ochs' `The Crucifixion', Graham Lowndes' `Rising of the Tide', Jimmy Webb's `The Moon's a Harsh Mistress', The Fugs' `When the Mode of the Music Changes', David Bowie's `All the Madmen' and Dory Previn's `The Game'.
In late 1975, Lewis won a study grant from the Australia Arts Council (under the auspices of Gough Whitlam's Labor government) and headed overseas. She spent three years in South America, where she studied the politics and music of the continent. She returned in late 1978, and supported John McLaughlin on his Australian tour (July 1979). Next, Lewis presented a show called Krazy for You which featured material from Nick Lowe, Noel Coward and Bruce Springsteen. In 1981, Lewis took the lead role in the stage production Piaf, which resulted in the album Piaf, the Songs and the Story (January 1982). She continued in musical theatre with roles in Three Penny Opera and her own show, For A Dancer. In 1983, Lewis appeared in the show So U Want Blood; backing for the show was provided by the All Singing All Dancing Orchestra which comprised Red Symons (guitar, musical director; ex-Skyhooks), Paul Grabowsky (piano), George Worontshak (keyboards), Ian McDonald (bass) and Eddie Van Roosendael (drums; ex-Stiletto). EMI issued the So U Want Blood album and the single `Big Cliches (are the Best)'/`Just One Spark' (September 1983).
Since that time, Lewis has appeared in a theatre production of Bizet's Carmen (1984), represented Australia at the Festival International Cervantino in Mexico (1987), presented her own shows, For a Dancer (1985), Voxy Lady (1990) and Dangerous Lovers (1992), joined the cast of the Paul Robeson stage show Deep Bells Ring (1987), appeared on the album Cinderella a Cappella alongside Margret Roadknight, Moya Simpson and Blaire Greenberg (1994), and toured with a revival of Piaf (1996). EMI issued a compilation in April 1995 called Classic Tracks 197376.
Classic Tracks 1973-76 (1995)
So U Want Blood (1983)
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Jeannie featured with Margret Roadknight at the Australian Blues Music Festival in 2005.