Tossin’ and Turnin’ and Bobby Lewis: Ain’t Just Everybody Who Hits #1
In the end, Bobby Lewis left a light footprint on rock ’n’ roll.
It was a footprint nonetheless, and Bobby Lewis’s death on April 28, at the age of probably 86, closes a life that reflects a good many truths about rock ’n’ roll.
Exhilarating music, troubling business.
Bobby Lewis was known in the rock ’n’ roll world for recording the best-selling single of 1961, the raucous, infectious “Tossin’ and Turnin’.” It was №1 on the pop charts for seven weeks that summer, №1 on the R&B charts for 10.
Paul McCartney has talked about how the Beatles’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” was striking because it had no buildup. It started at 60 miles an hour.
So did “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” which exploded out of AM radio speakers with Lewis crying “I couldn’t sleep at all last night” in a voice halfway between lament and desperation.
The rest of the song, given to Lewis by his friend Ritchie Adams, lead singer of the Fireflies, takes us on a two-minute-and-40-second tour of heartache-induced insomnia. He kicked the blankets off. He fiddled with his pillow. He went to the kitchen for a snack. He heard the milkman. Please don’t ask, “What’s a milkman, Grandpa?” He stared at the clock.
It’s a solid, classic rock ’n’ roll song, one of thousands that prove the 1958–1964 years between Elvis and the Beatles were anything but a wasteland.
“Tossin’ and Turnin’ “ sold more than a million copies and gave Lewis enough momentum to have a second top-10 hit, the rather similar and still solid “One Track Mind.”
That made Lewis a two-hit wonder, which is what he remained for the next 59 years and in the eyes of most rock ’n’ roll historians.
Rolling Stone magazine’s encyclopedia of rock ’n’ roll has an entry for Furry Lewis, a wonderful 1920s bluesman, and not for Bobby Lewis. Dave Marsh’s book on the top 1001 singles of all time does not include “Tossin’ and Turnin’.”
In all likelihood, neither Rolling Stone nor Marsh disliked Lewis or his hit record. They just didn’t think he or it rose above the pack.
It’s still impressive to have scored the best-selling record in a year that also gave us the Shirelles’s “Will You Still Me Tomorrow,” Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” Ray Charles’s “Hit The Road Jack,” Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared,” Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter To Three,” and Motown’s first №1 single, “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes.
It is also impressive that Bobby Lewis was in the pack at all.
Born in Indianapolis, by most accounts in 1933 and by some in 1925, he grew up in an orphanage. He wasn’t adopted until he was 12, after the Depression and the war. His new family moved him to Detroit.
While he didn’t get much formal education, he was encouraged to pursue the thing he really liked, which was music. By his late teens he had taken odd jobs as an iceman, janitor, hotel clerk and truck driver to support himself while he made the rounds of Detroit clubs, singing and looking for a break.
He traveled with carnivals. He sang with a band. He sang with a gospel group. In 1958 he cut his first record, “Mumbles Blues” for Spotlight. While it was picked up by the larger Chess label, it didn’t sell much.
He met Jackie Wilson, who had come out of the same Detroit clubs like the Flame. Wilson, by now a star, convinced Lewis to come to New York, reportedly by sending him a ticket. Lewis bounced around there, too, making the rounds through the city’s dozens of tiny independent labels hoping to find one that would record him.
He landed a week at the Apollo Theater, where he met the Fireflies, who had scored a hit with “You Were Mine.” Lewis gave the nervous young white kids some friendly encouragement.
That good deed paid off, according to legend, when Lewis knocked on the door of Beltone Records and found Ritchie Adams inside.
Lewis sang a couple of his own songs before Adams suggested he try a tune Adams had just written, “Tossin’ and Turnin’.”
Some singers knock on doors for years and never have that moment. Lewis did.
The song at that point “was a little rough,” Lewis told Newark Star-Ledger columnist Fran Wood in 2000. “I started singing, but I had to stop. ‘Hey,’ I told Ritchie, ‘the guy’s got a pillow in one hand. How you gonna throw the blankets off if you’re holding a pillow?’ So we kind of rewrote it while I was there.”
That included toying with and ultimately discarding a slow 15-second intro.
This all happened, Lewis said, just in time. He’d been in New York long enough that he was having trouble finding $18 a week to pay for his hotel room. If he went much longer without a nibble on his music, he was looking at a return trip to Detroit to see if he could still get the janitor job, which would at least feed his wife and kids.
So getting the song mattered.
“Joe Rene, the A&R man [at Beltone], asked if I wanted to record it,” Lewis told Wood. “I’m standing there with 35 or 40 cents in my pocket. All I want is something to eat. So I said, ‘Can you give me some money?’ He asked how much. ‘Got a 20?’ I asked.”
That wouldn’t be his last request, even after “Tossin’ and Turnin’ “ was certified gold and Lewis was supposed to be getting four cents a record — which is appalling, but by the standards of independent record labels of the day wasn’t unusual.
The challenge was collecting it. Lewis said that when Beltone kept finding excuses not to send his monthly royalty check, he went to politicians, policemen, lawyers and AFTRA. Ultimately, he said, he squeezed “dribs and drabs” out of Beltone.
His biggest single score was $3,500, which he used to buy a 1960 Chrysler New Yorker.
“The one with the high fins and the push-button shift,” he said. “God, how I loved that car.”
Unfortunately, neither Lewis nor Beltone was in a position to find strong follow-up material after “Tossin’ and Turnin’.” “One Track Mind,” which sounded a lot like its predecessor, was solid. But by 1962 Lewis was crossing his fingers and cutting “I’m Tossin’ and Turnin’ Again,” never a good sign. On one of his last sessions for Beltone, he remade his friend Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.”
It didn’t sell, and neither did his occasional future releases, none on major labels. When the British Invasion and Motown and the other pop-music tsunamis of the mid-1960s hit, earlier artists like Lewis pretty much got washed away.
He kept playing over the years, though not enough to really make a living. It didn’t help that his physical issues included poor eyesight, which worsened over time.
So he cobbled things together. When Burger King used “Tossin’ and Turnin’ “ in a commercial in the 1990s, Lewis said, he got a check for $25,000. “I lived for a couple of years on that,” he told Wood.
He settled in New Jersey, near a park where he said he ran two miles every other day. He played local gigs. After he attended the funeral of Shirelles singer Doris Jackson, he was invited to play the 15th anniversary of the Madonna Funeral Home, where her service had been held.
He wrote a new song for the occasion, he told Wood. One of the verses went like this: “I wrote my last will and testament / The hearse is here in place / And I don’t like that wide broad smile / On the undertaker’s face.”
Keeping your sense of humor is never a bad sign. Bobby Lewis didn’t have an easy life, but right in the middle of it, he cut a record that exploded out of the radio and made millions of people dance.
It’s every singer’s dream. A handful get it done.