Some people call me a rock star. It’s laughable, but I have been asked many times by my students and fans, “How did you do it?” Anyone who has a natural proficiency on a musical instrument and doesn’t have to work very hard at it to sound good has what the insiders call “The Curse.” People with the affliction who act on it are on a path of chaos. You are a black sheep, and your family and friends think you are nuts. I can still hear my father’s voice reverberating, “Do you realize how hard it is to make it in the music business?”
At 17 I started working at a music store and learned fret jobs, refinishes, and repairs. I taught guitar, bass, and flute, and sold guitars and amps. I moved to L.A., dropped out of college, and worked at Wallichs Music City. Eventually I toured with a club band around the country and came back with a few bucks and a working girlfriend—every musician’s dream! The club scene in L.A. paid weekly—very weakly—so I started helping my girlfriend frame and sell her artwork. Then came a startup amplifier company called Delta. I started on the assembly line stuffing circuit boards. The company went under, and I lost a ’62 Fender Concert amp and a Standel 2x12 cab when the collection agency changed the locks on the place. Topping it off, my girlfriend flew the coop.
I met Dave Schecter, and we started a Stratocaster retrofit and parts business in 1974 with a couple of investors from the Delta deal. We eventually turned that company into something, but I started getting more muso work and had to move on. Then I met my future wife, Dianne Steinberg, who took mercy on me by allowing me to play bass with her. She had a record deal and I met all the top studio guys on those recording sessions. I finally broke into the studio musician upper echelon because of her insisting that I play on her record.
My biggest break was co-writing/producing the Abracadabra album for Steve Miller. We had a Number One hit, and then it faded. Because I left the studio scene to go on the road with Steve, I lost all my clients. I had a bitchin’ house but no income, so I started doing duos with my pregnant wife in the late ’80s at Holiday Inns. I was right back where I had started.
Stints with JBL and Rivera Amplification paid me peanuts as a consultant. I got lucky again when Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits was released in a new format called “compact disc.” Steve called me to get back in the saddle with him, we toured, and I made some money. Then he walked away disgusted for four years when Napster came on the scene. I was back selling Strat-Paks at Guitar Center, and eventually became the Artists Relations Sales Manager. I even wore a suit and tie.
The happy ending happened at age 50, when Miller decided to go back out again. That was in 2004, and we’ve been going strong ever since. Moral of the story: Learn every trade and sales skill you can pull together. Starve, walk away, come back, teach, build, learn, struggle, and eventually someone may surprise you by asking, “What’s it like to be a rock star?”
Kenny Lee Lewis has been a touring member, guitarist, bassist, vocalist, producer, and writer for the Steve Miller Band since 1982. His other credits include recording and/or performing with Bonnie Raitt, Eddie Money, Dave Mason, Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, Boz Scaggs, and Stephen Stills.