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Laurie Beebe Lewis: Still California Dreaming!

Steven Schindler

Special to the Village News

As a 9 year old, and then as a teenager, I watched with eager anticipation as new rock and roll bands started making appearances on shows that my parents watched, especially The Ed Sullivan Show. Suddenly the world exploded when The Beatles appeared in 1964, soon followed by the British Invasion, and then American bands including the Beach Boys, The Turtles, The Doors, The Byrds and The Mamas & The Papas. But as I sat in front of our black and white TV, with tinfoil-enhanced rabbit ears, I never thought that I could actually be in The Beatles.

But a young girl in Michigan who watched with glee for the latest groups on TV, was especially thrilled when The Mamas & The Papas made their debut on "Ed Sullivan" in 1966. And little could that 12 year old girl have imagined that one day, she would actually be a member of The Mamas & The Papas! That unlikely dream came true for San Diego resident, Laurie Beebe Lewis.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I'd one day be on stage in The Mamas & The Papas! When we were kids, my sister and I would be washing the dishes and arguing over who sang what harmony parts of 'California Dreaming.'"

Both of Laurie's parents were very musical. In fact, her father was even a onetime vaudevillian. And of course Sunday get-togethers became group singing musicales with family and friends playing instruments and singing harmonies to the hits of the "swing era" of music. But even as a child, Laurie's taste in music was leaning more towards the latest sounds of rock and roll, rather than Ella Fitzgerald.

"My mom worked in a very popular music store in Michigan. Meat Loaf used to come by our house often. When I heard him sing, I knew that was how I wanted to sing! I remember one time, Stevie Wonder called my mom at home, begging her to rent some equipment to him, which she couldn't because it was already rented to someone else, and he got mad and hung up on her! We were like, 'Oh my God! Stevie Wonder got mad at you!' Our life was all about music."

Laurie's journey to be a professional musician and ultimately one of The Mamas & The Papas began as a teenager in Michigan in the late 1960s and early 70s. She and her sister had a band, Pitche Blende, which became a local hit, and even opened for Detroit area bands on the cusp of superstardom with the likes of Ted Nugent, Bob Seeger, Alice Cooper and Meat Loaf.

"My sister and I, being girls, tried really hard not to be put in the groupie category when we were backstage. We'd say, we're in a band, and they'd say 'What band are you in, little girl?' And then we'd get out on stage and blow their socks off!"

Pitche Blende was making a name for itself, but being in the crazy world of touring rock and roll bands had its hazards for two teenage sisters.

"My mom was our manager. She traveled with us, and kept us in line. She'd be like, get out of that dressing room! But I was starstruck! I wanted to be as cool as those guys in the band! I wanted to be their peer!"

Laurie made a professional career move in 1976 when she relocated to Chicago. She was soon performing with some of the top names in the music business including B.B. King, big band leader Les Elgart, and was a featured singer with The Spinners on their hit song, "Then Came You." As she was making a name for herself as a vocalist with top recording artists and commercial jingles, the Chicago based band, The Buckinghams, took notice, and hired her as a key vocalist and keyboard player. This led to the tour that would change her life.

In 1985 The Buckinghams, with Laurie on board, would become part of the "Happy Together Tour" with The Turtles, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and The Grassroots, playing to sold out crowds in 125 cities. The tour would sometimes have guest groups join them, and one of those groups was The New Mamas & The Papas, which at that time featured original members, John Phillips and Denny Doherty, plus new Mamas, Spanky McFarlane of the 60s hit group, Spanky and Our Gang, plus John's daughter, Mackenzie Phillips. Laurie and Spanky became good friends, and when Mackenzie had to leave the group due to personal issues, Spanky knew Laurie would be the perfect replacement. So in 1986 Laurie got a call from Spanky.

"She said, 'John Phillips is going to call you, and I want you to say yes!' Next thing you know, he calls and tells me all about Mackenzie's problems, and how I came highly recommended, and they'll be playing in Vegas for three weeks, then jump on a plane and tour the U.K. for three months. And I was like, 'Wow!' I said 'What songs should I learn?' and he said 'All of them.' I asked 'What parts should I learn?' He said, 'All of them.' A week later I was in a rehearsal during the day, and on stage with them that night!"

Laurie would go on to tour nationally and internationally as a member of The New Mamas & The Papas for seven years. But after a hiatus from the group for a few months when Mackenzie Phillips rejoined them and then dropped out again, Laurie had a conflict with a member of the group, and was asked to leave without explanation.

"I was devastated. And hurt. And they wouldn't even tell me why."

It wasn't until years later, at the funeral for John Phillips that former group member Scott McKenzie finally apologized. "He said, 'I am so, so sorry for what I did to you,'" Laurie explained, choking back tears "'You did not deserve that.' And we became good friends after that, which was amazing."

Laurie soon joined Spanky McFarlane who reformed Spanky and Our Gang with members of the original group, and had other gigs with Chicago area bands and producers. But after feeling her career was drifting without direction in Chicago, she was offered a position as a Music Instructor in San Diego in 1999.

"First of all, I wasn't that keen on kids," Laurie said laughing. "Why would I want to teach in elementary school? I had no idea! But I took the job, and it was fantastic! Unbelievable! I instructed 500 kids from K to 6th grade and taught everything I knew and loved about music and singing!"

Laurie taught until 2005, and was soon thrust back into the music scene with an old friend, veteran rock guitarist Dick Wagner who had played with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and Kiss among others. She has also recorded with Gary Puckett and still does recording sessions in San Diego and Los Angeles. But recently Laurie knew it was time to get back to doing what started it all: playing in a rock and roll band!

"I feel like it's time to step it up again! I have a legacy, playing with all these wonderful people! So I put together a band that would encompass all the music of the people that inspired me from The Mamas & The Papas, to Gary Puckett, to The Buckinghams, and put together a band to celebrate the music of the 60s!"

Be sure to put flowers in your hair and wear your tie-dye shirt when Laurie Beebe Lewis and her band, The Electric Underground, play the Mission Theatre Saturday, Aug. 19. You'll hear the best of the 1960s sounds with hits from Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Turtles, The Zombies, many other 60s supergroups, and of course The Mamas & The Papas.

"We have a great show planned for Fallbrook! We love it there and we love the Mission Theatre!"

So, be there, or be square!

(Steven Schindler's latest novel is "Fallout Shelter")


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