Keni St. Lewis has his suitcase by the door. The songwriter's wife, Marlene, sits by the door, signaling their mutual anxiety not to miss the plane back to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles, not Washington, is the symbolic locus for St. Lewiss success. He tried to make it as an entertainer in Washington but didn't. In fact, it took 20, slow, rocky years from singing in the corridors of Cardozo High School to the top of the music charts. It took a song called "Boogie Fever." It took Los Angeles, where St. Lewis landed two years ago after stops in Reno and Memphis, to give him a name. So he doesn't want to linger in Washington, his hometown.
"No, no, I'm not anxious to get back to the fast life. Los Angeles just has all the right ingredients for me to fantasize, to create," St. Lewis, slim and curly coiffed, says Los Angeles, he says, has not only provided the right contacts for success but the perfect environment. The palm trees, the sun - Los Angeles gave him a wrm welcome.
His smile is broad and self-confident. Then the expression changes to the same daring, questioning stare of his look-alike, singer James Brown. "In Los Angeles I'm woodshedding, I am a hermit by nature and work best alone. Tauruses are just stubborn, determined people. That's why I stuck it out this long."
His determination paid off. In the last 14 months, besides "Fever," St. Lewis has written "Hot Line," also for the Sylvers, "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel," and "Don't Take Away the Music," by Tavares - all million sellers. His "The Ghost of Love" by Tavares is now No. 51 and rising on the Record World chart.
Also, he is featured in the movie, "Record City," in which he sings the title song. In the future he promises more singing and writting. Now Saturday nights are the St. Lewis sound the same way his early idols, the Dells and the Spaniels were Saturday night for Keni St. Lewis.
"Hey, when I wasn't getting anywhere I would get depressed and think about doing something else. But the truth was I found out it was almost too late to do anything else," says St. Lewis flatly. "I can't put my finger on what it was about the singing. In school the V-Js, three other guys and myself, just started writing songs, singing in talent shows."
Though Los Angeles is now his chosen ground, St. Lewis continues to support his friends in the music business here. He's sitting in the Thomas Circle office of a former singing partner, Max Kidd, who is vice president of a record promotion firm, Al and the Kidd. "Things just didn't happen for us. But we are all kind of hard-headed," says Kidd.
While he was at Cardozo, St. Lewis wrote "Bad Detective," a hit song for the Coasters, one of the '50s best rock and roll groups, who, at the time of St. Lewis' association were on downslide. His group, the V-J's, however, were so singleminded about music they once had an uncle drive them to New York's famous Apollo Theater for amateur (they finished second). In Washington they did some backup work for Billy Stewart along the old supperclub strip on 14th Street> but their gigs extended only to Danville, Va.
"All we wanted was to sound like the Dells and the Spaniels, we wanted that cool, strong harmony. Naturally, I always wanted to be the lead but I was in the background," St. Lewis remembers. Another group was formed, the Enjoyables, with Max Kidd, and they made a record and played some good clubs, most memorably the Cafe Wha, in Greenwich Village, where the same year - 1960 - an unknown named Richard Pryor was working.
"We supported ourselves by doing any job we could get, a porter or a dishwasher. Our mothers chipped in, as did our ladies," says St. Lewis, nonchalantly. "On all our jobs we told them we would leave in a minute if we got lucky."
About 10 years ago St. Lewis decided to take some risk, he moved to Chicago and worked for Gene Chandler ("Duke of Earl") for a while, then to Reno, Nev., where he playe with a white band, then on to Memphis, where he sat around, hoping Isaac Hayes would record one of his tunes. The last stop was Los Angeles, where he teamed up with Freddie Peren, a graduate of Howard University and Motown Records, who was producing the Sylvers.
On the first two Sylvers albums, St. Lewis contributed a dozen songs. "Writing for the bubble-gum, disco crowd isn't hard. I look at the age bracket of the Sylvers and I know they haven't been suffering. So you don't write the blues. The lines are very simple," says St. Lewis. "What the experience has given me is a chance to go back, down my own Memory Lane, I actually feel like an infant, I feel the excitement of a new life."
St. Lewis is on his feet now and is the first one out the door. "Hey, it's been 20 years; I've had three gold records, and last year I made nearly a half-million dollars. This year," he looks to the ceiling. "it's anybody's guess." Whatever happens he is sure Los Angeles is the place - "it's a town that gives a nod to the songwriters and appreciation to those who have waited the long wait for success."