Music

Don Lewis, Electronic Music Pioneer, Dies at 81

Don Lewis, Electronic Music Pioneer, Dies at 81

The musician and composer created the “Live Electronic Orchestra”—a precursor to MIDI—and helped develop the Roland TR-808 drum machine

Don Lewis plays the organ and synthesizer in Denver view is from backstage facing the crowd

Don Lewis plays the organ and synthesizer at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (Photo By John Sunderland/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Don Lewis, the pioneering electronic music composer and musician, died Sunday (November 6), his representatives confirmed to Pitchfork. Over a 54-year career in music, he designed sounds and instrument voices 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 would eventually move to Los Angeles. In 1981 he settled in Pleasanton, in California’s East Bay suburbs. 

In the mid 1970s, he developed the “Live Electronic Orchestra,” a custom rig he used to control multiple synthesizers and sound modules with custom-designed keyboards nearly 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 developing rhythm units, including the iconic TR-808 drum machine.

Over the course of his career Lewis gave performances at the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, and the Apollo Theater, and collaborated with the likes of Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and The Beach Boys. In 1987, he created the education-focused “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’s set to make its national broadcast debut on PBS in February 2023 as Don Lewis and the Live Electric Orchestra.

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