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Lewis Ross: Wet Willie founder, Now a Po' Monkey

By: Jerry Henry, The Planet Weekly - Original Article

I interviewed Lewis Ross at Bailey Brothers Music Company's store on Highway 280 in Birmingham. Lewis is manager of all things percussion for Bailey Brothers three stores. He is well qualified because as a drummer, he is considered legendary. He was the original drummer for Wet Willie, which scored hits with songs like "Keep On Smilin'," "Leona," "Keep A Knockin'" and "Country Side Of Life." Wet Willie was a versatile, high energy Southern rock band that was signed to Capricorn Records in the 70's.

Lewis learned to play drums in a parochial school marching band in the 4th grade. He loved the rhythm and syncopation, especially when he was exposed to black school bands. His influences were Al Jackson (Otis Redding), Dino Danelli(the Young Rascals), Mitch Michell (Jimi Hendrix) and Ginger Baker (Cream).

The Wet Willie saga started in Mobile, home to Lewis and all the other band members. The original members were Jimmy Hall (vocals, harmonica & saxophone), Jack Hall (bass), John Anthony (keyboards), Ricky Hirsh (guitar) and Lewis Ross (drums & percussion). Jimmy and Jack's sister Donna Hall (now wife of Rollin' In The Hay bassist Stan Foster) was part of the background vocals that became known as "The Williettes."

Jimmy Hall, Jack Hall, Wick Larsen, Marshall Smith and Lewis all played in a band that broke up because Marshall Smith got drafted. Lewis started forming another band, in late 1968, when he contacted John Anthony, who was in The Sons of Creation. He remembers that day; they were playing the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo in Dauphin Island. He then called Ricky, then Jack, they started rehearsing. Jimmy was singing in a group called Mrs. O'leary's Cow. They wanted Jimmy to join them but Jimmy's band had won a national battle of the bands contest and was going to cut a record. So they got George Mills that sang and played guitar for The Sons of Creation. George could not make up his mind which band he wanted to be in. Lewis approached Jimmy over and over trying to convince him to join them. He finally convinced Jimmy to come to a band rehearsal. Jimmy joined them and they started gigging on the road The band was called Fox. They had to return to Mobile in order for John to finish high school. They played around Mobile until they got a phone call that would change their lives.

They got their start with Capricorn Records when Frank Freidman, a staff songwriter, needed a band to fulfill some contractual dates they had booked for a band called Willie. Frank called Ricky Hirsch (whom he had met in Tuscaloosa while both attended U of A) to ask him to be part of a band they were putting together to honor their commitments. Ricky said he would not come alone because he liked playing with Fox. Then asked if the band could come to Macon, Ga. to do the dates for them and get an audition. They had one original song and were working on the second. When they arrived at Capricorn they found it filled with Tuscaloosa/Muscle Shoals musicians; Lou Mullenix, Tippy Armstrong, Johnny Wyker, Cort Pickett, Eddie Hinton, Duane Allman and others. Capricorn had a huge stable of quality musicians. They did the dates after working up several of Frank's songs. They got their audition, in a warehouse where they had been rehearsing, by Frank Fenter, vice president of Capricorn. He liked what he heard, signed them, added Wet to the band name Willie and Paragon Agency began booking them. Lewis said, "It's remarkable that we did what we did. One of the driving forces behind all of that was the fact that people said we couldn't do it."

I asked Lewis about the unique and remarkable art work on their first album, Wet Willie (1971). He said they went to Athens, Ga. to play. While there they befriended a commune of artist that really liked the band. The artist set up an easel, with drawing paper, in the entrance way to a house they were renting. Every day someone would draw something different on it. The ear and the finger seemed befitting for a band named Wet Willie. The other odd graphics were the contributions of several artists. This was in the R. Crumb cartoon era and his influence is apparent. The sleeve photos were shot in Macon.

Lewis also co-wrote several of Wet Willie's songs. The most notable was their hit "Keep On Smilin'." Another is "Red Hot Chicken" which is an instrumental tribute to Macon's Le Carrousel Restaurant with his Dixie/Latin percussion pushing it. "Macon Hambone Blues" is also his; it is a stand out on their live album.

Back in those days Lewis played a set of Gretsch drums and played them until about 3 years ago. He still has them but they are too loud for his sound now. He played a vintage Slingerland set for a while but about a year ago got a Drum Workshop set. He said, "I absolutely love them."

Lewis also played with The Beat Daddys, a mixture of blues and Southern rock band. The Beat Daddy's had 2 releases for Malaco/Waldoxy, No, We Ain't From Clarksdale and South To Mississippi.

Lewis met Ross Roberts in Macon, during the Capricorn days, when Ross was in the Black Mountain Band. He ran into Ross again in 1992 when he was playing in a band at the Pink Pony and Ross was with Dick's Hat Band across the street gigging at the Barefoot Bar in Gulf Shores. Then one day Ross came into Bailey Brother's Music store, they began talking about music, one thing led to another and they started playing together. Now they have an 8 piece band, named Po' Monkey, that will represent Alabama in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in February. Po' Monkey is Ross Roberts (lead guitar), Bruce Andrews (singer & harmonica), Clayton Swafford (keyboards), Mike Lingo (trombone), Rick White (trumpet), Jon Remley (saxophone), Eric Onimus (bass) and Lewis Ross (drums). Po' Monkey has an album in its final production stages (engineered by Tuscaloosa's John Kliner) and should be released in late October (watch Music Matters for review).

Po' Monkey will play in Tuscaloosa, on Iron Bowl weekend, at Little Willie's, Friday November 28th