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"You're not drunk if you can lie on the floor without hanging on."

— One of Joe E. Lewis's most famous lines, also cited as "You're not drunk enough if you can still lie on the floor without holding on."

"I always wake up at the crack of ice."

— More of Lewis's onstage patter about his heavy drinking.

Born Joseph Klewan on January 12, 1902. This entertainer's story is colorful yet fading from popular knowledge. A friend and associate of Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle and such unsavory characters as mafioso Sam Giancana, an award-winning movie based on his life was made in 1957. His intriguing comeback after a horrible injury in 1927 is the stuff show business legend is made of.

Joe E. Lewis packed houses in roaring twenties lounges and nightclubs with his distinctive singing voice and ribald onstage patter. His career began in the clubs of Chicago, where he enjoyed enough success to come to the attention of mobster Al Capone and his cronies. Lewis was working at the time at a club owned by a Capone associate. Another club offered more money, and a percentage of the door take. He took the deal, but watched his back, knowing he'd angered the mercurial Capone. Lewis was so frightened at times, he hired a bodyguard to accompany him to and from the club.

By 1927, his polite but definite refusal to play mafia-run speakeasies got the singer in trouble with Capone and his associates. One evening a knock came at his hotel room door. There he was greeted by thugs who slit his throat, cutting his vocal cords. His skull was fractured, he was cut to the bone in an arm, and his tongue was cut with a razor. The fact that he survived the brutal attack was miraculous in itself; the fact that he ever spoke again was yet another miraculous milestone in Lewis's life. He was lucky, though. The hoodlums had jumped the gun. Mafia lore mentions that Capone's hit man wanted to wait a day or so until the infamous Saint Valentine's Day Massacre and include Joe in the lineup. Of course, this has been disputed and might just be a rumor that Lewis started himself. He would continue to keep company with gangsters until the end of his life. His mafia associations are mentioned in several F.B.I. documents.

The injuries left Lewis speechless for months after the incident. When his voice returned, it was no longer the smooth singing voice many paid to hear; it was more like a croak. Following the attack, Lewis became deeply depressed. It appeared as if his career had been, literally, cut short in its prime. It didn't occur to him that one of the reasons for his success as a night club entertainer was due to his bawdy yet exciting humor, delivered in-between his renditions of the popular songs of the day.

It was at the urging of his long-time pianist Austin Mack and famed singer Sophie Tucker that the singer re-invent himself as a comedian. Lewis already had the connections in the night club business, and had made a name for himself. What did he have to lose? His use of rough language and caustic wit won him a brand-new career in the business of comedy.

"Joe E. Lewis, clown supreme of the country's cafe circuit, began his annual stint at Monte Proser's Copacabana last night and unveiled potent new material that jolted the risibilities of the hep first nighters with endless hooks and jabs of topflight comic significance. It seems superfluous to say that Joe was past master, in his own ripely humorous mold; the rough edges that have become the veneer of his act were so admirably fitted that the comedian emerged, possibly for the first time, as a comedian of great polish who disdained the ad lib as a needless instrument of rescue."

— Robert W. Dana, columnist, "Tips on Tables" (1945).

During World War II, Lewis's career could go nowhere but up. By 1957, Lewis had been performing all over the U.S. in top-notch venues and had appeared on radio and television frequently. It was in that year that "The Joker Is Wild," a movie based on Lewis's life, was released. The film was directed by Charles Vidor and starring Frank Sinatra as Lewis.

The song "All The Way," made famous by Frank Sinatra, was introduced in the 1957 movie. It won an Academy Award for best song in 1957, and became a chart-topping hit. The title of the movie, in a re-release, was, "All The Way." The song was written by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. How ironic that Lewis, originally a singer by trade, could, because of his 1927 injury, do no more than speak the lyrics, and never tackled the difficult song in his act.

"I played all the joints. In fact, I've been hangin' around joints all my life. I been around so many joints I shoulda been an osteopath."

— Joe E. Lewis on speakeasies, clubs and "gin mills"

Although Lewis's first love, throughout his life, was alcohol, in more sober moments he could play the role of the womanizer well. He was linked romantically in the early 1940s to socialite Letty Page. The wealthy Page couldn't tolerate the alcoholic Lewis for long. His only marriage lasted from 1946 to 1948; the bride was a lowly chorus girl. Her name? Martha Stewart (no relation to the immaculate home-advice "high priestess" turned jailbird, turned TV star).

Following his divorce, his slide into alcoholism and depression nearly cost him his career and could very well have cost him his life. He continued to drink and smoke heavily for the rest of his life.

"A friend in need... is a pest."

— Arguably Lewis's most famous line.

"Not the knuckles, please; the tips; just the tips..."

— Singer/comedian Joe E. Lewis, kidding with pianist Austin Mack about Mack's fingers on the piano. From the live record album It Is Now Post Time Reprise R/R 5001 (1961).

It Is Now Post Time was Lewis's one and only recording, released in 1961 on Sinatra's Reprise record label as part of the label's (internally-named) "Series 5000 Comedy Collection." Sales of the slightly off-color album were brisk, even though Lewis poked fun at President Kennedy and brother Bobby. ("Vote for Kennedy. Vote for the Kennedy of your choice but vote!")

Lewis was famous for shouting "It is now post time!" in a race-announcer's voice, then sipping on his cocktail. A good part of his humor centered around drinking, bars, and booze. Remember that heavy drinking, in Lewis's heyday, wasn't frowned upon nearly as much as today. Only Foster Brooks, the sober comic who acted drunk, used more alcohol-related material than did Lewis. Sadly, on the occasions Lewis had exceeded his already incredible capacity for beverage alcohol, it wasn't really funny.

By the time of the album's release, Lewis was the toast of the hard-living, flashy Vegas set, seen in the company of Sinatra, Red Skelton, Berle and other notables (including the buxom Jayne Mansfield). Despite his experiences in Chicago with Capone's gang, he continued to rub elbows and dine out frequently with mobsters, Giancana in particular. There wasn't a night, it seems, that Lewis didn't quickly change clothes after his late show and party all night with his friends and acquaintances. The comic was the brunt of jokes about his heavy drinking and gambling. Ever self-deprecating, he just brushed them off, and often used others' material relating to him in his own act. In 1961 he'd have ten years of life left. Those ten years were, for all intents and purposes, a continuous binge.

A stroke claimed Joe E. Lewis's life in November of 1971.

SOURCES:

  • Gomes, Mario. "My Al Capone Museum: Joe E. Lewis" (Undated) http://www.myalcaponemuseum.com/id39.htm
  • Oldfield, Barney. "Reflections on Joe E. Lewis and Jayne Mansfield" (Undated) http://www.oldfields.org/contact/columns/6_reflections.html
  • Edwards, David, Eyries, Patrice and Callahan, Mike. "Reprise Discography, Part 7: Miscellaneous" (Series) http://www.bsnpubs.com/warner/reprise/reprisemisc.html
  • Author not credited. "Creative Quotes" http://www.creativequotations.com/one/2008.htm
  • Deming, Mark. "The Joker Is Wild" All Movie Guide, cited in The New York Times Online (Undated Archive) http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id
  • Dana, Robert W. "Tips on Tables" (Unidentified newspaper column - probably New York) September 7, 1945 Cited in "Craig's Big Bands and Big Names" http://www.bigbandsandbignames.com/joeelewis.html
  • The author's familiarity with the record album It Is Now Post Time.

ALL INTERNET SOURCES CONSULTED 28-05-2006 and 29-05-2006

NOTE: ALTHOUGH THE WRITER OF THIS ARTICLE SHARES LAST NAMES WITH, AND COINCIDENTALLY BEARS A RESEMBLANCE TO, JOE E. LEWIS, ONE MUST REMEMBER THAT LEWIS WAS JUST JOE KLEWAN'S STAGE NAME. LEWIS WAS NOT RELATED TO THE WRITER.

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