Rob Lewis spent the summer of 1993, the months before he arrived at Berklee as a freshman, cruising around Chicago in a $2,000 car he bought from his high school music teacher. In the tape deck was a dubbed cassette with Brian McKnight’s debut on one side and Take 6’s Christmas album on the other.
“That’s the only music I listened to,” Lewis ’94 says. “I didn’t need the radio. I didn’t need anything else... Then I get to Berklee and 17 days later I see Brian McKnight is coming here. I felt I was destined to be at Berklee.”
Fate may have connected Lewis with one of the giants of modern R&B, but it was his drive and curiosity that took him to the next step. At McKnight’s clinic, Lewis asked so many questions that the two ended up talking and playing music in a practice room afterward. McKnight remembered Lewis’s talent and motivation, and in the mid-’90s added him to his band. Later, Lewis would go on to become the musical director for half a dozen icons, from Christina Aguilera to Patti LaBelle, Babyface to New Kids on the Block.
In 2007, he received Berklee’s Distinguished Alumni Award, and this spring he returned to the college as an artist in residence with the Ensemble Department. He also led the Career Jam concert celebrating honorary doctorate recipient Sylvia Rhone in early April.
Sean Skeete, interim chair of the Ensemble Department, says there’s a good reason Lewis has had a great reputation as a musical director over the past 20 years: “To do what he does you have to be a great musician, but you also need organizational chops, the ability to communicate effectively offstage and onstage, and a sense of vision. Rob has always been a leader and students see that.”
Skeete met Lewis when the two were undergrads. He recalls a bus trip to then Dean of Faculty Warrick Carter’s house for a barbecue. Though the bus was filled with strangers, Lewis got them singing, harmonizing different parts on the fly.
“I don’t know if I remember it like Sean remembers it,” Lewis says with a laugh. “But I do remember that was an extremely talented class of people, all like-minded, cut from the same cloth, loving the R&B and church music that was out there.”
But Lewis had people harmonizing long before that bus ride. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the ’80s, he began piano lessons before he started grade school. When he was 9, his mother started sending him to different churches to play piano or Hammond organ (even if he couldn’t reach the pedals yet). At 12, he began leading choirs. As a high schooler at De La Salle Institute, he didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he knew it involved music and “getting out of Chicago.” His music teacher told him about Berklee, and as soon as Lewis saw “Quincy Jones ’51” in the brochure he was sold.
“My first glimpse of anything outside of Chicago was 270 Comm. Ave.,” he says. “That block alone changed my whole perspective of what was possible, of what else was out there. I think that block just triggers some kind of drive in you.”
Lewis jumped into anything and everything during his first year of school. He remembers performing 24 times in eight months: spots at showcases, gospel choir concerts, and caf shows. While he happily jammed with his peers on secular music, he leaned on his church background for work. Part of the reason he came to Boston was to meet Dennis Montgomery III, the director of Berklee’s Reverence Gospel Choir. After Montgomery told him the choir didn’t have any open spots, Lewis left the room and cried. Montgomery found him in the hall and asked where he was from. After learning Lewis came up playing in churches around Chicago, he asked the freshman if he needed a job.
“The next Sunday I was at Concord Baptist Church playing with Dennis Montgomery III and did that for two years,” Lewis says.
Throughout his career, Lewis has depended on patience and perseverance to keep him working. His approach: Show people your passion, skills, and ambition, and then put your head down and do the work.
“When I came in with Brian [McKnight], I didn't come in as musical director,” he says. “I came in as a second auxiliary keyboard player. But three years into that, I became musical director… Over time, I learned how to run a room, how to be respectful to everyone of their position, how to know what good really is. I want to teach the students these lessons."
And he learned what counts: “I always say it’s the 22 hours that you’re not on stage with people that matters more than the two hours you are.”