Thank you world for contributing founding Statler Brother Lew DeWitt
“Flowers on the Wall” endures as “one of country music’s most vivid descriptions of a bitter reject trying to convince himself of his indifference toward his ex-lover,” AllMusic reviewer Vince Ripol convincingly insists. Cut during a March 1965 Johnny Cash session at Nashville’s Columbia Studio after the star suddenly left to grab some lunch, the Statler Brothers seized their unpredictable boss’s serendipitous opportunity and taught the other musicians the chords to “Flowers” as well as Tom T. Hall’s “The Ballad of Billy Christian.” The former was merely slated as the B-side until canny deejays flipped the record over, yielding a crossover Top Five pop record penned by guitarist Lew DeWitt. A natural tenor capable of making arm hairs salute, DeWitt composed two subsequent hits in the ’70s for the three-time Grammy-winning quartet nurtured on gospel music — the nostalgic “Pictures” and “The Movies.” Soon to be 30 years since DeWitt’s premature demise at age 52, Jimmy Fortune offers a fond remembrance of the clever, unassuming B-Western admirer who personally selected him as his permanent replacement in 1982 [catch up with part one of the interview entitled “Searching for Elvis Presley’s Humanity…” here].
The Jimmy Fortune Interview, Part Two
What comes to mind when you reflect about Lew DeWitt?
I got to know Lew some. He suffered from Crohn’s [an inflammatory bowel disease]. After he saw me performing at a local ski lodge and recommended me for the group, we still kept in touch [Author’s Note: Fortune’s debut concert was January 28, 1982, in Savannah, Georgia. DeWitt’s health improved enough by June that he temporarily rejoined the group for a Hee Haw taping and to host the Music City News Awards in Nashville. Fortune was part of the band. DeWitt reconsidered his decision before the month was over and stepped down permanently].
Lew would need surgery, and there were times that he wanted to give up. I’d say, “Lew, you’ve gotta try to get this surgery so it’ll give you a few more years.” He would finally give in and say, “Okay.” He had about four or five good years after his 1983 operation [DeWitt rebounded for two solo albums — On My Own and the ironically titled Here to Stay — on the indie Compleat label that have yet to be reissued in any format]. Finally he needed a heart transplant, and he got so far down that he couldn’t come back [March 12, 1938 — August 15, 1990]. I loved Lew. He was a great guy, great talent, and great friend to me. I miss him and still can’t believe it’s closing in on 30 years since he passed away.
What’s a deep Lew cut deserving rediscovery?
“Chet Atkins’ Hand” [1981 B-side of Don and Harold’s No. 5 C&W “Don’t Wait on Me;” available on Years Ago]. Lew of course wrote “Flowers on the Wall” [No. 4 POP, No. 2 C&W, 1965] and a lot of other great songs that the Statler Brothers recorded [e.g. “I’m the Boy” (No. 60 C&W 1969], “Pictures” (No. 13 C&W 1971 in collaboration with Don), “Thank You World” (No. 31 C&W 1974 with Don) and “The Movies” (No. 10 C&W 1977)].
Being a guitarist, how would you evaluate Lew’s six-string prowess?
Lew was one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. People don’t realize what a great guitar player he was. He could sit down and play with Chet Atkins. You would think, ‘My gosh, he’s going lick for lick with Chet Atkins!’ He was that good. Matter of fact, when the Statler Brothers first started Lew was their band. It was Lew on guitar and those four singing [Author’s Note: A Sunday evening in June 1955 at the Lyndhurst Methodist Church in Lyndhurst, Virginia, was their official gig, albeit billed as the Four Star Quartet. Joe McDorman was the original frontman before being replaced by Harold’s 14-year-old brother Don in 1960].
What about Lew’s tenor vocals?
The timbre of Lew’s voice was magical. Harold and Don [Reid] held down the low end, and Phil [Balsley] and Lew were solid on the high end. I’m not saying it wasn’t magical when I came, but it was different. It’s pretty unbelievable how things are meant to be. I helped them sustain a career that had been successful for decades, but Lew is the one that laid the ground work.
Did you ever discuss writing together?
Yeah, we talked about it. I know that his family has some of the songs that he never finished. I tried to get in touch with them to see if I could flesh them out and eventually record. Then we’d have co-written a song[s] together.
Was Lew still writing as his affliction worsened?
Not to my knowledge. Maybe he jotted down some lyrics. If you walk by a guitar, you can’t help but pick it up and start strumming. It’s the same way with writing songs. In the back of your mind you go, ‘Oh man, that’s a pretty good idea. I might sit down here and fool with that.’
When did you last speak with Lew?
Lew was always encouraging me, and we kept in touch. I went by Lew’s house to see him about a month before he passed away, and he was really sick. It was just Lew, his wife Judy, and me. We visited and had a good time [the Statlers were playing at the Erie County Fair and Expo in Hamburg, New York, the evening of DeWitt’s passing when Don Reid announced the terrible news]. At his funeral I’m grateful there were no regrets. I spent time with Lew when it counted — while he was among the living. I won’t ever forget him. In every show that I do I pay tribute to Lew with “Flowers on the Wall” because he deserves it.
Searching for Elvis Presley’s humanity with Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune [PART ONE OF THE INTERVIEW]
“More Than a Name on a Wall” lyricist Jimmy Fortune sheds light on a heretofore unexplored facet of his artistic…
The serendipitous final romance of Statler Brothers tenor Lew DeWitt
At last Judy Wells DeWitt breaks her silence to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Country Music Hall of Fame…
The Lew DeWitt songwriting discography
The Statler Brothers tenor launched a career by penning “Flowers on the Wall,” a 1965 crossover smash. His songs are…
Still holding his mud: A day in the life of ‘struggling’ guitarist Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard discusses his childhood, playing fiddle and guitar, songwriting, losing anonymity, conquering stage…
‘Someday I’m gonna sing on the Grand Ole Opry:’ Uncovering Connie Smith
The Country Music Hall of Famer and wife of roots rocker Marty Stuart declares how she was discovered at a theme park…
Guaranteed to knock ’em dead: The marvelous voice of Lorrie Morgan
The elegant Nashville alto weaves tales of laughter, anxiety, misconceptions, Johnny Carson, the Rat Pack, Bobbie…
Never givin’ up with foremost country troubadour Danny Dawson
The Georgia Traditional Artist of the Year alum covers his hardscrabble Georgia roots with 18 siblings, Waylon…
More thunder on the piano — Ronnie Milsap relives Memphis days with Elvis Presley
Ronnie Milsap auspiciously bridged the gap between country and pop in the early ’80s, and his influence still permeates…
Jerry Reed’s guest guitar on Ringo Starr’s countrified ‘$15 Draw’
That’s Jerry Reed counting off ex-Beatle Ringo Starr’s “$15 Draw” and clawin’ up a catchy guitar riff. The best song on…
Hold on partner — The day Clint Black met the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers
Hayden Nicholas, best known as the songwriting and guitar sidekick of singer Clint Black, relives the serendipitous…
A souvenir of iconic songwriter John Prine’s 2010 turn on RFD-TV’s ‘The Marty Stuart Show’
Illinoisan songwriter and former mailman John Prine consistently dropped superb records for 47 years and was a…
© Jeremy Roberts, 2020. All rights reserved. To touch base, email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.