Ted Lewis Biography

Ted Lewis was born Theodore Leopold Friedman on June 6, 1890 at 132 West Main Street, Circleville, Ohio. He was one of five sons.  His parents, Benjamin and Pauline Friedman, owned Friedman’s Bazaar at 121-123 West Main Street, an emporium that supplied the womenfolk of Pickaway County with the latest fashions.

From earliest childhood, young Theodore was less than enthusiastic about ladies’ wear.  His earliest employment consisted of “sweeping up” both inside and outside the Friedman store and delivering packages.  According to Ted in one of his writings, at about nine years of age he began playing on a piccolo, because his fingers were too small to reach and play a clarinet.  German music teacher was his teacher and conductor of the Circleville Cadet Band in which Ted played the piccolo and then E-flat clarinet.He later mowed lawns to earn money to buy an E-flat clarinet.  

Unbeknownst to the bandmaster, he had been taking lessons in syncopation from a local barber, Cricket Smith, a black barber who had organized a barbershop orchestra.  Every day after school he would go to Cricket’s shop where he practiced “innovative syncopation.”  In 1927 Ted wrote, “At the next band concert, things went smoothly until we were ready for ‘Poet and Peasant’. Whether from a spirit of revolt or a strain of negativism, the notes I played were the beginning of the Jazz Age for me.”  Also, this proved to be the end of his being in the Cadet Band, for the teacher threw him out!  (He later apologized when Ted had become famous.)

When minstrels came to town he would help them unload and then carry the banner in parades.  At age 13 or 14, he would play his E-flat clarinet and bring the crowds together for the old-time medicine shows that came to town.  All of this conduct embarrassed his parents.

Theodore's first professional singing job was in between movies at Circleville's Electric Nickelodeon in 1906.  "I earned four dollars a week and had to learn a new song each night," he liked to recall.

His parents enrolled Theodore in a Columbus, Ohio business college, but the stage-struck youth played hooky.  He worked in Goldsmith's Music Store and persuaded Gus Sun, who operated a vaudeville circuit, to give him a job.  He was soon in New York City, working in a cabaret called the El Dorado.  This was not the future Mr. Friedman had in mind for his son.  While on a buying trip to the big city, he discovered the lad's whereabouts and hustled him home.

But it was too late!  Gotham beckoned and young Theodore was soon back with renewed determination.  While there he met Jack Lewis and they formed an act called Lewis and Friedman.  When performing in the Carolinas, he noticed a billing of "Lewis and Lewis" outside the theater.  The manager explained that his name was changed to Lewis to better fit on the marquee.  Thereafter, he was known to the world as Ted Lewis, but he never legally changed his name.  In 1916, while in New York, Lewis put together his first band, a five-piece ensemble called the Ted Lewis Nut Band.  He then proceeded to talk his way into an engagement at Coney Island.  The band was an instant success and Bert Cooper booked Ted for a season with Bessie Clayton and later with Joan Sawyer in "Au Caprice." 

In 1917 Ted's band was signed by Earl Fuller to appear at Rector's Restaurant on Broadway and 48th Street in New York City.  The same year during an intermission at Rectors, the battered old top hat, which became Ted's trademark, was acquired in a dice game from a cab driver, a former prizefighter called "Mississippi."  When resuming a performance after a dance set one night, he tipped the old hat and asked the question, "Is everybody happy?"  Everybody was; they applauded and that became his catch phrase used throughout the remainder of his career.  Thereafter, the old hat, along with his clarinet and cane, was always a part of his act.

In a short time, Ted Lewis was on stage at the Greenwich Village Follies, Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic and B.F. Keith's Palace Theatre.  He was the first show business celebrity who had ever been a headliner at three Broadway nightspots at the same time.

He was soon recording for Columbia and making his brand of syncopated jazz a nation- wide craze.  On the wave of such popularity, in 1918 Ted opened his own cabaret, the Bal Tabarin, which catered to the New York social set.  He later became a partner in the Montmartre Club and then opened the Ted Lewis Club on 52nd Street.

Ted recorded for Columbia, Mercury, Decca and RKO Unique.  For many years he received royalties from such standards as "When My Baby Smiles At Me" (his theme song)," "St. Louis Blues," "Sunny Side of The Street," "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave To Me," "Rose of Washington Square," "Georgette," Three O'Clock In The Morning," and "Me And My Shadow."  His 1926 Columbia recording of "Tiger Rag" sold more than five million copies. As its highest-paid artist of the 1920s, Columbia designed a customized silver label for him—his name and a silhouette of the bandleader in his top hat. In December 1929, he signed a new contract with the label, guaranteeing him $42,000 plus royalties on each record pressed each year, for two years.

Ted shared the stage with the show business greats Texas Guinan, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice, George Jessel, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Victor Moore and Will Rogers.  Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden Muggsy Spanier and Jimmy Dorsey all performed or recorded with Ted's band. 

His famous "Me and My Shadow" routine came about when one of Ted's performers vaudevillian Eddie Chester was watching Ted  perform the song from the wings. Chester followed Ted onto the stage and mimicked his movements and Ted kept the routine in his act for the rest of his career. Lewis would work with four other shadows (all African-American performers) during his career, making him the first prominent white entertainer to showcase African-American performers. 

Known as “The Jazz King” and “The High-Hatted Tragedian Of Song,” Ted was a magician in the art of extracting drama from jazz.  Throughout his career he maintained one method, one style of administering song and dance.  His theory was that the only way to reach the public with music was to give it to them in a form they could understand and thus enjoy.  In 1925 he appeared in England at the London Hippodrome and the Kit-Kat Restaurant with his band.  He gave performances for nine United States Presidents and a command performance for King George V of England.  He appeared in several movies, and was a major star signed by Warner Brothers to make a film based on his life story, called “Is Everybody Happy?”  His show business career spanned more than 60 years.  Ted brought jazz music into the mainstream and popularized the genre.

In 1915 Ted met his wife, ballerina Adah Becker, in Rochester, New York.  Six weeks later they were wed in three separate ceremonies on the same day (first by a justice of the peace, next by a rabbi, and finally on stage that night).  They were married 56 years.  Adah gave up her dancing career and was his secretary, business manager and loving helpmate throughout his long career.  The young couple settled into a lovely 15-room apartment overlooking New York City's Central Park.  Ted and Adah continued to live there the remainder of their lives.  

Ted Lewis died in his sleep on August 25, 1971, at the age of 81.  Following a Jewish funeral service in New York City, his body was brought to his beloved Circleville where thousands walked past his coffin.  Rabbi Jerome D. Folkman officiated; he remarked, "The song has ended, but the memory lingers on."  Burial took place in the local Forest Cemetery.  Ted's stone, in the family plot, has his hat and cane incised upon it.  Ted's beloved wife, Adah, who died on May 31, 1981, rests beside him.