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 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, songwriting 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 worldwide. 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 underway 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 7:00 am 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 a 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 methamphetamine binge for several days, which can produce methamphetamine 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 11:55 pm 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 onto 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.”
- You may also like Whitney (2018) — The Rise & Fall of America’s Sweetheart