Years before the MIDI controller was developed, he came up with the idea for the first system that could integrate various instruments by using a single control panel. 1974 was the year, and Don Lewis was growing weary of lugging about many such keyboards.
He eventually found himself in a Los Angeles recording studio, collaborating with Quincy Jones. One week later, there is a possibility that he will be accompanying the Beach Boys on tour as a member of their backing band. Or, he could be doing his own gigs, moving up and down the West Coast with an ever-expanding array of keyboards and other equipment.
He might have taken his reliable Hammond Concorde organ, which is not inconsequential. On the other hand, Lewis was a sound explorer who was always looking for new things to hear. He needed to add to his collection any keyboard he came across with a specific tone. He performed in a one-man band, but his ultimate goal was to become a one-man orchestra.
There was more to the issue than just his overall weight. No industry standard could be followed to integrate the many instruments. Thus, each one had to be regulated independently. He was trained as an electrical engineer, and he decided to disassemble them to use their components in the construction of something new. In 1977, after spending the previous three years planning and soliciting financial support, he finally completed the Live Electronic Orchestra, also referred to as the LEO.
Pieces from three keyboards, a plethora of synthesizers, control panels, and a drum machine were assembled into a series of plexiglass modules to create this musical Frankenstein’s monster. Lewis took his place in the center, acting as if he were directing traffic at a musical airport. Not only was he able to select the sounds he desired, but he also could combine them in real-time thanks to his design.
On November 6th, Lewis passed away at his home in Pleasanton, California. He was 81 years old. According to his wife, Julie Lewis, the cause of death was cancer.
People are accustomed to the concept that they can create nearly any sound they desire on a laptop, and this concept has become increasingly common. In spite of the fact that this was not the case in the 1970s, Lewis discovered a technique to compose a symphony of sound using only his fingertips.
The LEO was sold for almost one hundred thousand dollars, and the inventor never produced another. Regardless, many people enjoyed it. He played in a bar in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf that was crowded each of the six evenings of the week.
One of his many admirers was an engineer by the name of Ikutaro Kakehashi. Lewis’s innovation so moved Kakehashi that he went on to create, along with Dave Smith, the musical instrument digital interface, also known as MIDI. This protocol is what enables modern music production to take place. Lewis had a large following. (Smith passed away in June at the age of 72.)
Lewis’s success as a live performer is primarily attributed to his ability to get listeners to pay attention to him rather than his keyboard rig. Because his technology was so ingenious and discreet, most people quickly forgot about it and allowed themselves to be carried away by the music he had made instead. He was an unheralded pioneer of electronic music who laid the groundwork for a billion beeps, boops, and oonz-oonzes in the future.
Many disagreed with him and claimed he was not a musician but merely someone who pushed buttons. During the middle of the 1980s, members of the musicians’ organization staged demonstrations against his performances on the grounds that he would put them out of business. In front of the National Labor Relations Board, he contested their ability to picket him in any capacity.
He didn’t win. The idea that in order to do his work, he would have to violate a picket line was intolerable to him. He tried to put the whole ordeal in the past by putting the LEO in his garage and trying to forget it. A number of years later, the matter was reexamined by the government, and this time, the decision was made in his favor; in fact, he was even awarded a settlement.
However, he did not bring the LEO back with him. It is currently on display at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California, where he was endowed with the instrument before donating it to the institution.