It’s an expression that we’ve all heard countless times and one that certainly could be applied to a lot of musicians, but when it comes to being a graduate of the school of hard knocks, Bobby Lewis definitely qualifies.
The R&B singing star, whose recording of “Tossin’ And Turnin'” rose to the number-one spot on the charts in 1961, came a long way from his humble beginnings. Born in Kentucky but raised in an Indianapolis orphanage, even at a young age he showed some musical aptitude. But things didn’t always goe smoothly for young Bobby, and by his early teens he’d been placed into — and run away from — at least one foster home. By age 14 he was on his own.
It must have been very tough for him to survive in America in that era — not just for the ever-present racism, but also because the country was just entering World War II. But in spite of all that was going on he somehow managed to stay afloat. Sticking mostly to the Midwest, he spent some time in both Indianapolis and Detroit and had a lot of jobs, at one point even working in a carnival.
In the post-war years he finally began to make some headway into a musical career, making spot appearances in small clubs and latching on as a singer with the Leo Hines Orchestra. By the 1950s he’d managed to land a limited recording contract, but successful record sales eluded him. In 1960 he finally got his break.
By then he was in New York and making occasional appearances at the Apollo Theater. That in turn led to a connection with a small recording company, Beltone Records, and a trip to the studio to cut what would be his one big hit, “Tossin’ And Turnin’.” By early 1961 the record had shot up the charts and hit the top, selling millions of copies.
It was so successful that Beltone allowed Bobby to record enough additional songs to fill an album, but even though one other tune — “One Track Mind” — did well as a single, none approached the success of his biggest hit. After Beltone itself went under, Bobby managed to record a few records for other companies but eventually pretty much retired, although he has occasionally appeared in Oldies shows. (Video below.)