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April Clare Welsh
9 November 2022, 12:36

Electronic music pioneer Don Lewis dies, aged 81

Lewis was known best for his multi-synth custom rig, the LEO, as well as working on the iconic Yamaha DX7 and TR-808

Don Lewis

Don Lewis, the pioneering electronic music composer, musician and synth creator, has died aged 81. News of the artist's passing on Sunday (6th November) was shared with Pitchfork.

Born in Dayton, Ohio on 26th March 1941, Lewis studied electronic engineering at the Tuskegee Institute before going on to serve in the Air Force as a Nuclear Weapons Specialist in Denver, Colorado. He later moved to Los Angeles and in 1981, settled in Pleasanton, in California’s East Bay suburbs. 

In the mid-1970s, he began making a name for himself in the synthesizer world with his 'Live Electronic Orchestra' (LEO) custom multi-synth rig – a precursor to the invention of MIDI in 1983. He created voices for the iconic Yamaha DX7, among other synths, and worked closely with Roland founder Ikutarô Kakehashi in developing rhythm units, including the TR-808. 

As a musician, he performed at the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, and the Apollo Theater, and worked with everyone from Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, and The Beach Boys. In 1987, he launched the education-focused 'Say Yes to Music!' concert tours, produced by his wife Julie.

Lewis's life has been made into a documentary, 'The Ballad of Don Lewis: The Untold Story of a Synthesizer Pioneer'. The film, directed by Ned Augustenborg, is due to air on PBS in February 2023. Watch a trailer below.

Image via Facebook