After more than a decade of filming, friendship and hard work, "The Ballad of Don Lewis: The Untold Story of a Synthesizer Pioneer" has been released.
"The reviews have been fantastic -- 5 stars across the board," producer Ned Augustenborg said. "I somehow successfully told this complicated story of a complicated man in a way that is educational, warm and dramatic."
He sums up the documentary: "An African American from Dayton, Ohio, alters the world's musical landscape in his pursuit to revolutionize the synthesizer, experiencing a lifelong journey hindered by technological limitations, dated commercial practices and racial stereotypes."
But Don Lewis, 78, is perhaps best known around Pleasanton for his music programs for children and his thousand-watt smile as well as his electronic music. He is a longtime Rotarian, as is his wife Julie, who co-produced the film.
His lifelong mission to discover and play every conceivable musical note began as he grew up singing and playing the organ in church.
"In high school I was in an electronics course, which was in the '50s," Lewis recalled. "We built AM radios and FM radios, and high fidelity and stereo were starting to happen."
But he was most fascinated by the organ.
"Playing the organ is really like the original idea of making different sounds, pulling the stops for different pieces," Lewis explained.
After college at Tuskegee Institute, Lewis joined the U.S. Air Force, serving in New Mexico as a nuclear weapons specialist. He next moved to Denver where he worked as an engineering technician and continued entertaining with his organ music at restaurants.
"But in 1968 I heard Wendy Carlos' 'Switched on Bach' -- I wanted to do that," Lewis recalled.
The recording, on a Moog synthesizer, required two years in a studio, playing every note on a multi-track recorder, Lewis said. His idea was to make these sounds -- indeed, all the sounds of an orchestra -- on one electronic instrument.
Lewis moved to Los Angeles to pursue music full time, and in the '70s he toured with the Beach Boys, and played in studio with Sergio Mendes, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and other music greats.
Meanwhile he continued work on his Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO), a synthesizer system he completed in 1977 that became an inspiration for Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).
Lewis performed with LEO regularly at the Hungry Tiger at Fisherman's Wharf from 1977-84 after he moved to San Francisco. But as his following grew so did Musicians Union Local 6's unease with the prospect that one musician on a synthesizer might put many others out of work, and its leadership focused on Lewis, picketing his performances.
"Don was a threat," Augustenborg said.
He thought this persecution by the union -- which still listed black musicians separately from white musicians -- was an inherent part of the story, but he had to convince Don and Julie.
"One of their strengths is they are so good at staying positive," Augustenborg said. "But it seemed obvious to me that the union made Don a national enemy. They finally acquiesced."
Augustenborg, who has received multiple Emmy and CableACE Awards in the categories of entertainment, documentary, news and sports, met Don Lewis about 16 years ago when the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad acquired LEO and hosted a fundraiser with Don and LEO providing entertainment.
"I was working for the local TV operator, and the museum wanted us to feature Don's visit," Augustenborg recalled. "I'd always loved the synthesizer, so I thought I'd bring in some friends and do a three-camera shoot of the concert."
He added a few interviews, put together a one-hour concert video, and invited Don and Julie Lewis to take a look.
"Then it was a long process in determining what we were going to do with the footage -- a long but enjoyable process," Augustenborg said.
The agreement to produce a full-length documentary brought a host of new challenges.
"How do you tell an audience ... the importance of frequency modulated synthesis?" Augustenborg said. "I had to put something together that made sense."
He ended up conducting interviews with 17 of Lewis' former associates in the electronic music world, which was a series of enjoyable reunions.
"Julie booked every single person in the film, and in a lot of cases, they hadn't seen Don and Julie in years," Augustenborg said.
In the film, musicians recall that in the '70s everyone had their own idea of what a synthesizer should sound like, and Lewis defined a whole new way to listen and to create sound. He is compared to Galileo with his pioneering, going beyond what most people were even dreaming of let alone putting a screwdriver and a soldering iron together to make the sound.
Composer/producer Quincy Jones explains the reception of the synthesizer: "They embraced it, they welcomed it. It allowed us to go in between notes."
"The Ballad of Don Lewis," which runs 93 minutes, documents a unique moment in the world of music and sound.
"And the technology keeps changing -- that's one of the things that made this documentary so much fun," Augustenborg noted. "And Don was ahead of the technology."
"This creation of Don's is the only LEO in existence," he added, "and he's likely the only musician in the world possessing the unique talents and disciplines needed to play it."
A rough cut of "The Ballad of Don Lewis" was aired at the Firehouse Arts Center four years ago, to check reactions of viewers.
"It was good to hear people laugh at the right time, and to cry at the right time," Augustenborg said. "The tears I didn't expect."
"The place was packed, with a lot of wonderful friends in our community and quite a few Rotarians," Lewis remembered.
The Lewises moved to Pleasanton in 1981.
"We were living in a flat in the city and I had a whole bunch of instruments there and I was trying to play them all the time," Lewis said with a laugh, remembering their impact on the neighbors.
A friend introduced them to Pleasanton, which Lewis said they loved for, among other things, the freedom it allowed sons Marc and Paul to ride their bikes and benefit from the school system.
Now "The Ballad" is finalized, and DVDs can be ordered through theballadofdonlewis.com or Amazon.com; it can be streamed locally on Xfinity cable network, VOD/PPV. Augustenborg said it was exciting that so many outlets wanted the film.
Last year, in a step to help heal the country's racism and chaotic political moods, Lewis released his album, "Amazing Voyage," a synthesized rendition of seven songs starting with "Amazing Grace" and including "We Shall Overcome."
"It's always been about hope," Julie Lewis said, "something that can make the world a better place."