The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Ephraim Lewis

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If things had gone to plan, Ephraim Lewis would have been a household name. Music execs spent millions trying to turn the boy from Wolverhampton into the British Michael Jackson. Then in 1994, Ephraim Lewis jumped from a balcony in Los Angeles. The secrets of his brief, troubled life only emerging a year after his death.

On Thursday, April 21, 1994, 500 people gathered at the Darlington Street Methodist Church in Wolverhampton for the funeral of Ephraim Lewis, a 26-year-old professional soul singer. Big funerals are a cultural tradition among Britain’s black community, but this one was unusual for reasons other than its size. Lewis had died more than a month before, in Los Angeles, in violent and mysterious circumstances, and it had taken that long to get his body back home for burial. Now, at the funeral, tensions erupted between members of the Lewis family and mourners from Lewis’s musical life.

Annie Roseberry, the veteran record executive, was then head of the London office of Lewis’s record label, Elektra. “The family became very peculiar about the whole thing. I think they felt record companies and managers were evil people. I guess, when anybody dies young, you look for someone to blame, but it was outrageous.”

Kevin Bacon, co-owner of Sheffield’s Axis Studio, was one of the two men who discovered Ephraim Lewis. “We went to the funeral and left straight away; there was so much negative stuff going on. People were going around asking, ‘How did Ephraim really die?’ and ‘Are you David Harper?’ in kind of a threatening way.” David Harper was Lewis’s manager. A well-known figure in the rock business, who also managed Robert Palmer and UB40, he had paid for Lewis’s body to be returned to England and for most of the funeral expenses, but he stayed away, aware of the family’s hostility toward him.

Nor did the ripples resulting from Lewis’s death end with the funeral. That summer, Elektra shut down its London office – its main artist in its brief two-year existence had been Ephraim Lewis. And things changed dramatically at the legendary US parent label, Warner Elektra, which had signed The Doors and a host of other west coast acts in the sixties. Chairman Bob Krasnow, who had personally escorted Ephraim Lewis around the US in Warner’s company jet to promote Lewis’s first and only album, left after a period of protracted corporate infighting, made redundant by the company.

Then, in September, the Lewis family, still muttering their suspicions about Elektra and David Harper, filed a claim against the Los Angeles Police for causing Lewis’s death.

But the public repercussions concealed a deeper private saga. Hidden from the view even of close friends and music industry professionals, Ephraim Lewis’s death was the latest act in a family tragedy and the final destruction of an extraordinary family drama – the dream of creating a British version of the Jackson Five, with Ephraim Lewis as Britain’s Michael Jackson. Ephraim who? You’ve probably never heard of him, but everyone who knew him, from relatives and teachers to fellow musicians and top record executives, think you soon would have. They are unanimous in believing that, at the time he died, Lewis was on the verge of becoming a pop superstar. The comparison with Michael Jackson is not far wrong, although the two men didn’t look or sound alike. Lewis was a muscular, very black man with a big voice – a ‘gospel voice’, according to his brother Terence – and, where Jackson was a singer-dancer, Lewis was more of a singer-actor. What Lewis and Jackson had in common, they say, was the sheer scale of their talent.

“Ephraim had the qualities to be a massive star,” says Kevin Bacon. “This was somebody so brilliant at what he did he never thought about it. Most singers have tremendous egos based around their insecurity about their own singing. Ephraim didn’t have that kind of ego because it never occurred to him there was anything he couldn’t do.”

Annie Roseberry, who has worked with the likes of Bono, was just as impressed. “I’ve never worked with as good a singer and I doubt I ever will again. His voice was exceptional, and there was something about him, a quality that very successful artists have – a sense of himself, a sense of what he wanted to be and what he wanted to sing.”

Richard Hawley, a Sheffield musician, knew Lewis well. “I thought I could sing until I heard Ephraim. He was as good as Sam Cooke, if not better. It was awesome.”

Ephraim LewisEphraim Lewis was the youngest of eight children born to Jabez Lewis and his first wife. One of five brothers, Jabez arrived in Wolverhampton in 1955, in the early wave of Jamaican immigration to Britain. He married almost immediately, bought his house at the age of 21, and settled down to work on the factory floor at Goodyear Tires. The children came quickly, too – six boys and two girls in 11 years. In 1962, Jabez followed his wife into a strict gospel church, the Wesleyan Holiness Church, which was devoutly opposed to smoking, drinking, and much else besides; it was, coincidentally, the same church to which Sam Cooke’s father – himself a driven man – also belonged. It was Jabez who formed the Lewis Five as a copy of the Jackson Five, with his sons; Derek, Tony, Sylvester, and Ephraim as lead singer. All the family were musical. Jabez himself played guitar with the Five. But he knew nothing about the music business and, with his new-found faith, confined the Five to playing religious music.

As the boys grew up, they broke away. Derek, Sylvester, and Tony formed a secular group called The Trimmertones, with a cousin and did quite well around the local clubs, releasing an independent single and touring as far afield as Holland and Ireland, with Jabez relegated to the role of part-time roadie. Then they too broke up, as innumerable local groups do, starved of sufficient money and success.

In 1984, Ephraim Lewis’s mother died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. Her death marked the end not only of Jabez’s musical ambitions, but of his family itself. Ephraim was then 16, the last child still living at home. He promptly left and returned only for very rare visits.

Jabez Lewis is guarded about what happened. “Ephraim, he was very close to his mother and his mother loved him. But, with all the children, when they grow up and begin to rebel, they don’t want to go to church, you see. That’s how it begins. I tell them all they don’t need to go out in the tough world to make money, they can make religious songs and get money from it. But they want the limelight.”

Ephraim Lewis was the youngest, and of all the children, the one trying hardest to make something of his life. The rest of them, they finish school and unfortunately they never hold down a good steady job. Ephraim was the only one. What he doesn’t say is that the religious dispute was the tip of the iceberg. His wife’s death and Jabez’s rapid remarriage brought out deep and bitter divisions between Jabez and his children. In later years, Ephraim would join Terence and some of the others to “confront” Jabez about their upbringing. Of the eight Lewis children, two – Sylvester and Ephraim – died in their twenties. Two others are in and out of psychiatric hospitals. The rest survive as best they can. “An awful lot has been swept under the carpet in this family,” says Terence Lewis today.

Ephraim was always the exception. He didn’t seem to have any problems. But then Ephraim had his talent. Barry Cade, headmaster of Ephraim’s old school, and himself a former actor, recalls Ephraim as “a boy of outstanding intelligence and tremendous sensitivity. In 27 years of teaching the performing arts, I’ve never seen such a talent. For a long time when he was with us, Ephraim was cooking his own means and washing his own clothes. He was the classic kid from a deprived background who you’d have thought would go the way of all flesh, but he seemed to have a courage that enabled him to stand back from all that.”

Ephraim Lewis took a while to find his way out. He lived in Stoke and London, supporting himself by working in fast-food joints and a gas station, while he searched for a way into the music business. Then, in 1990 (aged 22), he was finally taken up by Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby’s Axis Studio in Sheffield. Bacon and Quarmby were among the numerous small independent producers in Britain who acted as talent-supporters, nurturing and developing new artists for the big record companies.

Lewis moved to Sheffield, where Bacon and Quarmby became his producers, song-writing partners, and substitute family. For the next four years, Bacon and Quarmby made a huge emotional and professional investment in their discovery. When Elektra signed Lewis in 1991, it looked as if the trio’s work might pay off.

Lewis recorded his first album, “Skin” with Bacon and Quarmby as producers. “We’d imagined it as a small-scale album from a new artist,” recalls Kevin Bacon. “The first step on Ephraim’s career ladder. Instead, when Bob Krasnow heard it, he went berserk about it and put millions of dollars into promotion to make it happen.”

Annie Roseberry confirms this. “Ephraim was adored by the chairman, adored by the people in this company. Krasnow’s interest in him was very unusual. No artist I’ve ever worked with has had the exposure and the treatment Ephraim got from Elektra.”

But the big push, in Bacon’s words, “sort of backfired.” Despite some critical acclaim, “Skin” sold only modestly – fewer than 150,000 copies world-wide. Elektra remained committed, but wanted more commercial songs. A tug-of-war developed between the record company and Bacon and Quarmby. By the time preparations for Lewis’s second album got under way in 1993, it was clear that Lewis was moving on and up, and that Bacon and Quarmby wouldn’t be going with him.

It’s a credit to all involved that things didn’t turn nasty at that point. Lewis was an attractive young man – cheerful, optimistic, the sort of person other people put aside their own needs and ambitions to help. But Lewis was also a man with secrets; for instance, about his sexuality.

A year before he died, Ephraim broke up with his long-time girlfriend and began an affair with Paul Flowers, a Sheffield graduate student. “We met in Sheffield Botanical Gardens by chance,” Flowers remembers. “I was openly gay, but Ephraim wasn’t ready to call himself gay at the time. We arranged to meet again and just sort of fell in love. Ephraim had an incredible presence. He glowed with energy. I was always amazed at how people reacted to him. By early 1994, the affair had become “a life of domestic bliss,” says Flowers. By all accounts, Lewis was in a buoyant mood, which made his sudden death all the more inexplicable to family and friends. He had solved his sexual problems, becoming, as he told Flowers, “a whole person at last.” He had solved his financial problems, recently buying a black BMW with his Elektra money. He was also on the verge of solving his musical problem, which had always been to find the right material to match his voice. Lewis was not an experienced songwriter. Now Elektra had decided to send him to Los Angeles to work with top composer Glen Ballard, who has written hits for Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, and many others.

“Ephraim came to school to see me just before he left for the US,” recalls Bary Cade. “He seemed as if the world was finally opening up for him.” Six weeks later, he was dead.

Around 7:00am on March 18, 1994, LA police responded to reports of a “naked man acting crazy” at 1710 Fuller Avenue – a typical, small Hollywood apartment building, four stories built around a courtyard, each apartment with a balcony facing inwards. The naked man was Ephraim Lewis, who had been living at 1710 Fuller Avenue while he was in LA, working with Ballard.

Lewis was due to fly home that day, and the previous night he had arranged a farewell dinner with Robin Fish (a mutual friend of Lewis and Flowers). But Lewis cancelled, saying he had to meet David Harper instead. There is evidence that Lewis, who had concealed his homosexuality from his manager, planned to “come out” to Harper. Lewis then cancelled Harper too, playing one appointment against the other.

“That was typical Ephraim,” says Kevin Bacon. “He wasn’t the most reliable person.” With Ephraim, “I’m definitely going to be there” meant “probably not.” Though no one knows who (if anyone) Lewis met that night, we can make an educated guess. While in LA, Lewis told Flowers, he’d been going around the West Hollywood gay scene. He’d been really enjoying that side of himself which he hadn’t been able to before. The West Hollywood gay bar scene is far more open and active than any British equivalent. Its casual sex and drug use are almost politically correct rites of passage for many young LA gays. And Lewis had become militant about his new sexual identity. “He wanted to be a positive gay black role model because there are so few in the black community,” says Flowers.

Lewis family members and friends are adamant Ephraim was not an habitual drug user. Indeed, they say he was strongly and vocally anti-drugs. But that is not the whole story. Terence, his brother, saw him smoke pot, and Kevin Bacon, when asked if he and Quarmby ever saw Lewis use amphetamines (speed), preferred not to answer. The postmortem found a small amount of speed in Lewis’s body, but not enough to account for his naked, bizarre behaviour on March 18th. However, it is now clear Lewis had been on a metamphetamine binge for several days, which can produce metamphetamine psychosis, a state of paranoid derangement.

Lewis was also terrified of the police, who repeatedly stopped him in Britain in his BMW – “A black man in a posh car. I’ve never had so much police attention as when I was with Ephraim,” recalls Flowers. When the LA cops arrived at 1710 Fuller, Lewis became more paranoid and, according to a report by the LA District Attorney’s Bureau of Special Operations, began climbing the outside balconies, “leaping from balcony to balcony, both horizontally and vertically, moving up and across the building.”

Lewis was singing to himself and shouting at the police to shut up. Reaching the top floor, he broke an apartment window and began stabbing himself repeatedly in the thigh with a shard of glass. By now, Robin Fish had turned up, looking for Lewis, who had broken a second breakfast date with Fish. He tried to talk Lewis down, but Lewis didn’t seem to recognize him and the cops pushed Fish away.

What happened next remains in dispute. But within minutes, Ephraim Lewis had fallen or jumped from the top balcony, crashed through a ficus tree, and hit the courtyard, sustaining massive head injuries. He lingered, brain-dead, in a local hospital until, at 11:55pm that night, they turned off the respirator. Death is supposed to bring people together. More often, and especially if the death is violent and mysterious, it does the opposite. When the news reached Wolverhampton, most of the Lewis family went into shock, but Terence, the closest to Ephraim among his brothers, and Lewis’s cousin Naomi Hobbs went into action (among the extended Lewis clan, Hobbs is one of the ones who made it, became a barrister in her thirties entirely by her own efforts – it was Hobbs who mobilized the family and spearheaded their attempts to question the LA police’s account of Ephraim Lewis’s death).

Unfortunately, in those early, confused days, Hobbs’ dynamism had other consequences. Ugly misunderstandings arose.

Eager to investigate for themselves, the Lewis family asked Elektra and David Harper for money to fly to LA. To Elektra and Harper, both of them knew of Ephraim’s equivocal relationship with his family, the requests sounded like greedy demands backed by insinuations that they had somehow been responsible for the death.

The Lewis family were out of their depth, treating the music business as an all-powerful establishment which should have done more and now ought to pay. For their part, Elektra and Harper were also at fault. They failed to tolerate the understandably turbulent emotions of the moment or to imagine themselves in the place of ordinary Wolverhampton people faced with a shocking, distant tragedy.

Communication was cut off. Silences were misinterpreted. Ironically, as Kevin Bacon notes, “the only mistake David Harper made was trying to protect the family” by withholding the full details of Ephraim Lewis’s behaviour that morning.

Other ripples from Lewis’s death also turned out to be misunderstandings. When Elektra closed their London office and Krasnow was made redundant, these events had nothing to do with Lewis. They were fallout of a brutal corporate battle among top New York executives at Warner Music.

But there still remains a question mark over the behaviour of the LA police. According to police, Lewis actually entered the top-floor apartment at 1710 Fuller where, fearing he was about to attack them with broken glass, the cops shot him twice with a “taser”, the electronic stun gun they use as a non-lethal alternative to real guns. Police say the taser had no effect. Lewis turned, ran back out on to the balcony, and either jumped or fell to his death.

However, some witnesses say Lewis never went inside, but remained on the balcony throughout, leading to the suspicion that it was the impact of the taser which knocked him over the edge.

“That’s the big discrepancy,” according to John Burton, the LA lawyer who represents the Lewis family. But it may not be enough for a case unless witnesses can be found who actually saw the taser hit Lewis.

There are other discrepancies in the police account, which is not unusual in LA. According to another LA lawyer who deals with similar cases: “I’ve always said, give me any police shooting or in-custody death and I can make it look like a conspiracy, no matter how clear it was. The police are so used to covering stuff up, they look like they’re doing it even when they’re not. They’re just not trained to tell the truth.”

Nor are they trained to deal with deranged people. “It’s a common problem here,” says John Burton. “The police don’t have the patience and they also see it as a macho thing, a challenge to their authority. Ephraim wasn’t hurting anybody. He was going to come down eventually if they’d kind of backed off and let Robin Fish talk to him. But they’ll never change.”

Just as Ephraim Lewis’s personality brought people together while he lived, so his death divided them. It destroyed not only his own dreams but also those of others. Like many of the people in this story, Kevin Bacon is “angry because Ephraim acted like a brat and threw it all away.” Richard Hawley, whose own band, The Long Pigs, was signed to Elektra, adds, “The music that guy had in him! He was like a guiding light for local musicians who are serious about what they do.”

But it is Paul Flowers, who loved Lewis last, who puts it best: “Ephraim Lewis changed the lives of everybody he met. He certainly changed mine. It was incredibly liberating and now he’s gone, it’s incredibly painful. And none of it needed to have happened. If one little thing had been different that night…it was all like these stupid circumstances came together that ended up with him dead.”

This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in Mail on Sunday (London), January 8-10, 1995 © Associated Newspapers Limited. For more information on Ephraim Lewis (1968 – 1994), visit the unofficial fanzine.

29 thoughts on “The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Ephraim Lewis”

  1. rnbhaven says:

    This is absolutely amazing! Thanks for posting this. I love Ephraim and always wanted to see him live!

  2. Paul says:

    I’ve listened to Ephraim Lewis’s haunting voice since discovering the CD “Skin” in a little record shop in Virginia in 1995, during what I call, my Winter in America. That was long before iPods, MP3s, and the ability to carry your entire music collection around with you everywhere, and I must have played the few albums I bought in America non-stop: Born Jamericans’ Kids From Foreign; Carleen Anderson’s True Spirit and, of course, the one album by Ephraim Lewis. There was something about his “Skin” that was nothing like anything I’d ever heard before, or since.

    Strange then, that after all these years I had no idea that he was in fact British. It was only last week when I mentioned him as a ‘one-hit-wonder’ on Facebook that a friend came back and pointed out this article. He had never heard of him before, and it had never occurred to me that Lewis was anything other than an African-American who had died in a tragic fall from a high-rise building, so I’d heard. But I had listened to him often, especially during that wilderness year in Washington, DC, and Virginia, and still listen to him today.

    Hearing him now, and seeing the man in action for the first time in the video clips above, I can’t imagine what possessed me to think that he was anything other that English (Black) born and bred. It’s so clearly obvious, not only in the clipped tone of his singing voice but also in the clarity of his pronunciation. I can only think that my mind was conditioned by the fact that I had bought the CD while living abroad and having a particularly difficult time in America. Perhaps part of me, rightly or wrongly, just would not believe that anyone this good could actually come from England.

    I had an Ephraim Lewis day last week, listening to his masterpiece over and over again with a tear in my eye. Funny how music has the ability to transport you back to another place and time.

    Rest in peace, brother.

  3. JeffmChicago says:

    Thank you for posting this. My first look at Mr. Lewis LIVE. God rest his soul. He had a beautiful voice and now to see him singing this gorgeous song fills my heart with joy.

    R.I.P. Mr. Lewis your music lives on………………………..

  4. ibizamaria says:

    R.I.P Ephraim

    he died in 1994

  5. Kenyon712 says:

    Incredible vocal gift.

  6. novaphoenix70 says:

    Thanks for posting this. Ephraim Lewis was a very talented man taken from us before his time.

  7. memyself2k says:

    Thank goodness for YouTube. I’ve heard this song many times in supermarkets, but I never knew who sang this song, or that he the artist was black. It did not matter what color the artist was who sang the song as long as it was good.

    May this brother RIP.

  8. memyself2k says:

    He should have gotten more airplay and exposure. I’m lead to believe that it was due to bad management.

  9. SoulTooSoul says:

    This video documents the incredible talent Epharim Lewis possesed. The music mogals believed he was Britian’s answer to the late Donnie Hathaway, How ironic, his life would end under similar circumstances. His record was released in 1992 to critical acclaimed. The public did not respond in purchsing this epic album. His songs are timeless, revealing a spiritual beauty. Though only a small legion know of Ephraim, his songs and voice continue to touch souls.

  10. SoulTooSoul says:

    This video clip is a wonderful find. For years I thought Ephraim Lewis either dropped out of the music business, or could not get another recording contract. I was shocked when I googled Ephraim and found out he had died. I tried to make sense of his tragic death. A lot of money and hope had been invested in this vocal wonder. He was at the verge of fullfilling his dreams. He was blessed with a gift. The two video clips are a testamony to his sheere talent. Ephraim Lewis was musical royalty.

  11. wildpeachatl737 says:

    The sound engineering on this track is almost perfection to my ears and one of my favorte tracks off the “Skin” CD. Ephraim Lewis was a talent that we had just had just a glimmer of seeing blossom and left us far too soon.

    Thank you for posting this video, I had no idea one had ever been done for this.

  12. ericlarkins says:

    This guy was such a homerun – amazing vocals, great writing, both main melodies & background harmonies, lyrics…. everything…. I wish he could’ve had longer.

    His album is FANTASTIC!!!!

  13. blaueswunder3 says:

    Love the sound AND the lyrics. Timeless beauty. R.I.P.

  14. Douggiie says:

    I think this shows where Maxwell, D’Angelo and others got their inspiration

  15. robowolf826 says:

    man with a voice like that you left us to soon my brother thanks for all the music

  16. ciscocastille says:

    This song and video was groundbreaking, when it came out, me and my siblings would watch it over and over, the concept, his talent, everything about it was new, great,and mind blowing! R.I.P. Ephraim . . .

  17. muzo56281721 says:

    Fabulous and special! Anybody got Mr Lewis’ unreleased second album? Please upload any other discography than the debut album ‘Skin’.

  18. larrybfresh20 says:

    That album was never finished, matter of fact I believe he died before he even began working on it.

  19. TheJaycob1990 says:

    Larry, he did not get to record a full album, but he did finish some songs for it. If you type in the names Ephraim Lewis Glen Ballard into Google then you should come across a magazine interview in which Glenn says that he recorded some songs with him, but Ephraim did not live to complete the album.

  20. MedusasKimono says:

    ♥ R ♥ I ♥ P ♥

  21. anercandelario says:

    The sad history of Mr. Lewis is that the cops were called to his apartment for a noise complaint. He was reportedly high on something and got scared and leapt out of his window, naked, to his death. RIP

  22. Snowcal09 says:

    Why is it that the good ones always seem to go first. : (

  23. ponyboy314 says:

    I hear that after almost 20 years, we still don’t really know what killed the poor guy…

  24. boomerang2 says:

    this rendition is even better than that laid down on the album .. fantastic find. Love the finish from 4:45 onwards… hairs onthe back of my neck…
    How could a talent like this go to such waste. Will always be immortal in my eyes (and ears…)

  25. lword1970 says:

    = pretty much

  26. flavinhacs21 says:

    wonderfull

  27. Ephraim Lewis says:

    Funny Thing.. My Name is Ephraim Lewis.

  28. nigel says:

    when i lived in london i had the fortune of coming across your plays. glad, i read this blog to learn about ephraim lewis’ legacy. thank you for sharing your creative gifts.

  29. LDBaldwin says:

    Thank you for keeping alive such a beautiful voice and artist. He was taken from us way too soon. Way too soon.

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