CURTIS LEWIS was one of the first black composers to set up his own publishing company on Broadway in the early '40s.
"He and I started it together," says his widow, Audrey Buchanan, who has since remarried. "At the time, there were almost no black composers or businessmen who dared open up on Broadway because it was a very close-knit society. They composers could peddle their tunes and the other publishers would take them, but Curtis was the only one who was steadfast in wanting to develop a business, which he did do."
Lewis, who died in 1969 at the age of 51, also was one of the few composers in that era, black or white, who wrote both the words and the music for his songs. Five of those songs were strung together to form a suite, "The Garden of the Blues." The suite will be performed in its entirety for only the second time on Sunday afternoon at the Hammer Auditorium of the Corcoran Gallery by Shirley Horn, the outstanding Washington singer and pianist.
Horn's relationship with Lewis goes back to her very first record in 1960, when she recorded two songs from the suite, "He Never Mentioned Love" and "The Blue City." She got the music from John Levy, her manager at the time, without realizing both were from a larger piece.
"I only saw him the one time, in the studio," Horn recalls. "Curtis Lewis was a very nice man, a quiet man. He gave me a piece of music that said 'All Night Long' -- the ink wasn't really dry -- and I thanked him. Of course, it was my first recording, so I was nervous; then I didn't see him anymore." Last year, Horn finally recorded "All Night Long," which was also the title of her comeback album. "I just love his music."
Lewis' songs have been recorded by quite a few people: Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson and Aretha Franklin all did "All Night Long" ("I just heard Aretha's version on the radio," Buchanan says proudly). Franklin also recorded "Today I Sing the Blues" (there's a solid Helen Humnes version, as well), Billie Holiday sang "Now or Never," George Shearing did "All Soul." There are a number of versions of "Gone Again," notably by Arthur Prysock with the Count Basie Orchestra and Woody Brown with Lionel Hampton's band (which made it a standard). One song, "Old Country," was cowritten with Nat Adderley. The last thing Lewis wrote was the theme to the 1969 film "Miracle of Love," which at the time was considered one of the last "European-type risque films" before R ratings came into being. "Of course, it was really quite mild," says Buchanan.
The first time the entire "Garden" suite was performed was in 1963 by Marge Dodson in New York, and although individual songs have been heard on albums, it's never been recorded.
"Curtis was a big storyteller," Buchanan recalls. "He looked to develop things into stories even on a one-to-one, social level. When he wrote the suite, he felt it could almost be a production. Basically, it's the story of people who come to a big city, be it New York or wherever, and what happens to them: how they find that they're alone, how they meet the city slickers and get caught up in the inner goings on of the city. It's the emotions of a person, what can happen to them--how they meet someone who promises them the world and love and all kinds of things and they look up and suddenly realize they have been taken.
"Curtis wrote a series of five songs that tell this story, and then he had segues that lead from one into the other; he also wrote the prose to interconnect the songs. When you hear the suite in its entirety, you get a feeling of someone coming to the city and what happens as they meet different people in different situations; then at the end, he's ready to leave the city because he's blue and beaten."
Lewis, who was born in Fort Worth in 1918, spent most of his early years in Chicago. "He started writing at 10," Buchanan says. "He wrote his first song on an envelope and mailed it to himself with a little sketch of Popeye because he also used to draw." Lewis studied music in Chicago and, during a World War II Army stint, in Florence. "When he returned from the Army, several teachers told him to take his songs to New York to get them published because they felt he was very talented. He did peddle his songs on Tin Pan Alley" before starting his own company, Buchanan says.
Lewis also had a brief career as a recording artist with Apollo Records. "He sang with a trio," Buchanan says. "From being a sergeant in the war, Curtis happened to have a very gravelly voice. The problem was that he happened to sound almost identical to Nat King Cole, and Nat at that time was really hot. Curtis' records did moderately well, but they never took off."
Just before his death, Lewis was working on a project with writer James Baldwin. Buchanan believes Lewis' work "has not gotten the attention that it probably should have," but there's also been no one to champion it. "I was alone in the city with our daughter, and when I went around, it was disheartening: People wanted to be cut in, friends became sharks. I became disenchanted, and tucked everything away in the apartment." Which is where it rests still.
On Sunday Buchanan will fly from Massachussetts and her daughter will come from Kansas City for Horn's reading of "The Garden of the Blues."