Don Lewis, the pioneering electronic music composer and musician, died Sunday (November 6), his officials confirmed to Pitchfork. In his 54-year music career he designed sounds and instrument parts for Hammond, Roland, Yamaha and ARP and developed a unique live rig that was years ahead of its time. He was 81.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Lewis served in the Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist in Denver, Colorado, but eventually moved to Los Angeles. In 1981 he settled in Pleasanton, in the East Bay suburb of California.
In the mid-1970s, he developed the “Live Electronic Orchestra,” a custom rig he used to control multiple synthesizers and sound modules with custom keyboards almost a decade before the introduction of MIDI in 1983. He designed voices for the Yamaha DX7, among other synthesizers, and worked directly with Roland founder Ikutarô Kakehashi to develop rhythm units, including the legendary TR-808 drum machine.
Throughout his career, Lewis has performed at the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater and has worked with the likes of Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and The Beach Boys. In 1987 he founded the educational program Say Yes to Music!. Concert tours produced by his wife Julie.
His life and career is profiled in Ned Augustenborg’s 2020 documentary The Ballad of Don Lewis: The Untold Story of a Synthesizer Pioneer. It is slated to make its national broadcast debut on PBS in February 2023 as Don Lewis and the Live Electric Orchestra.
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