Minneapolis R&B vet Pierre Lewis resurfaces with Prince connection

Interest in an old Prince recording helped unearth the Minneapolis Sound pioneer, who tours the world with the Commodores but plays a local dive bar every Sunday.

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Pierre Lewis, left, makes a point of returning home from Commodores tours to play every Sunday at the Lux Lounge in south Minneapolis with the New Experience Band, featuring Allen Hudson III on vocals.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON, Star Tribune

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A low-frills bar inside a south Minneapolis house, the Lux Lounge can only be identified by a window sign that says guns are banned inside. It usually takes someone who hung out there back in the ’70s and ’80s to point you to it.

Pierre Lewis, who performs there every Sunday night, is one of those people. Now, music collectors far and wide are pointing to Lewis as another hidden gem.

After setting up his keyboards at the Lux last Sunday, the 55-year-old R&B vet killed time by thumbing through photos on his phone. There were recent shots from China and South Africa, where he performed as a member of the Commodores. A couple of ’90s pictures showed him working as a lounge act in Miami. And from the ’70s, he flashed a shot of a barely post-pubescent Prince and Morris Day smirking into the camera.

“I’m thinking we need to cut Prince some kind of check for this record,” Lewis said after putting the phone away, “but I haven’t really talked to him since we were kids.”

The record in question is “The Lewis Connection,” a dust-covered 1979 disco and funk mash-up by Pierre and his brother Andre that was the impetus for last year’s popular compilation “Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979.”

Local label Secret Stash originally wanted to reissue the entire album but balked, for the same reason that copies of the record have sold for $1,000 on eBay: Prince plays on one (and only one) of its tracks.

Prince’s lawyers are known to sue over even the most innocuous usage of his royal name. A Chicago record company with as much hipster cachet and broader distribution than Secret Stash has taken up the cause, though.

“Anytime collectors are paying as much for a record as they were this one, it attracts our attention,” said Jon Kirby, director of A&R and research at the Numero Music Group, which reissued “The Lewis Connection” last month with fanfare from Pitchfork.com and other music media.

He said the label is not afraid of getting on Prince’s bad side.

“If you’re snapping a family photo at Disney World and Prince happens to walk by in the background, would he be able to tell you that you can’t show the photo to anyone? That’s about the equivalent to his involvement on this record.”

Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to recognize Prince on the slow-swaying love song “Got to Be Something Here.” He plays a generic rhythm guitar part and is one of several background vocalists on the track, which is more a showpiece for his future bassist Sonny Thompson, delivering a solid Stevie Wonder impression on lead vocals.

Still, it’s Prince’s name in the liner notes (as Prince Rogers Nelson) that made the album a collector’s item. It’s believed to be the oldest surviving record to feature the future megastar.

Only 1,000 copies were printed of “The Lewis Connection,” funded by a car-accident claim Lewis and his brother won. He painfully recalled that a decade or two ago his sister threw out a box full of records stored at their mother’s house. He held onto a handful of copies that he sold in recent years for the $1,000 asking price.

Whether or not he sees much money off the reissues, Lewis said, “I’m just excited that people are finally going to hear it.”

Making the ‘Conection’

As teenagers, the Lewis brothers — Andre, two years younger, played guitar to Pierre’s keyboards — used to take the bus from St. Paul to Minneapolis to rehearse with the musicians who would trademark the Minneapolis Sound a decade later. Jimmy Jam actually replaced Pierre in the band Flyte Tyme (precursor to the Time). Both Lewis siblings also played with Thompson in his mid-’70s band the Family.

It was that group that recorded “Got to Be Something Here” at Minneapolis’ famed Sound 80 Studio, circa 1976. Pierre recalled that Prince had a falling out with his band at the time, Grand Central Station, and was trying to get work.

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  • Audio: "Get Up" by the Lewis Connection

    Thursday September 13, 2012

  • Formerly the Spruce Lounge, the Lux still looks as it did when Lewis played there decades ago.

  • Pierre Lewis

    Weekly gig: Sundays with New Experience Band, 5-8 p.m., Lux Lounge, 3836 4th Av. S., Mpls., $5, 612-824-5431.

    Album reissue: Order “The Lewis Connection” via www.NumeroGroup.com.

    Sample tracks: Hear some at startribune.com/music.

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