Welcome to another installment of Reissue Theory, where we focus on notable albums and the reissues they could someday see. Beautiful pop-soul from an artist that should have had a much longer career is the order of the day; we present a look back at Ephraim Lewis, the best ’90s soul singer time forgot.
If you use reissues and expanded music titles as tools to uncover an artist’s body of work or to shine a light on a forgotten musician, you doubtlessly have plenty of albums you’d like to see rescued from the flotsam of used bins everywhere, and put up on a pedestal for all to rediscover.
In today’s Reissue Theory, we add another name to the pile: Ephraim Lewis. The British singer is best known among music geeks for his brilliant entry into the music world and his tragic exit from it. But there are plenty who are missing out. And if you like your pop and R&B sophisticated and romantic, you’re going to want to acquaint – or reacquaint – yourself as we imagine a forgotten classic of the ’90s expanded for a new audience.
Slip into Skin after the jump.
For whatever reason, Ephraim Lewis is frequently brought up in comparison to Seal. And while both of them are black, British singers, the similarities kind of end there. Where Seal was an early master of slick dance music with a bluesy rasp in his voice, Lewis was a sophisti-pop singer with nary a shout to be had. Perhaps his most notable work, the slinky and romantic “Drowning in Your Eyes” is arguably the closest a man has gotten to replicating the style of Sade. It was quiet storm with a ’90s, distinctly European beat.
If things had turned out differently, though, Lewis’ musical style would have been more sacred. The youngest of eight children, he was positioned by his father, a Jamaican immigrant and factory worker (and strict member of the Wesleyan Holiness Church, which Sam Cooke’s father also belonged to), as the lead singer of The Lewis Five with his brothers. The band never went anywhere, and it’s arguable that their failure took a toll on the family. Lewis left home at age 16, not long after the death of his mother, and by some accounts largely didn’t look back.
By 1990, Lewis and two independent producers, Jonathan Quambry and Kevin Bacon, were working together and managed interest from Elektra, Warner’s subsidiary label which was making inroads in the U.K. (label chairman Bob Krasnow was responsible for signing a major Brit act, The Cure, to the label in the mid-’80s). While Quambry and Bacon were very nurturing of the 23-year-old singer, even they didn’t have delusions of grandeur about the album. “We’d imagined it as a small-scale album from a new artist,” Bacon told The Mail on Sunday in 1995. “The first step on Ephraim’s career ladder. Instead, when Bob Krasnow heard it, he went berserk about it and put millions of dollars into promotion to make it happen.”
That push, astoundingly, didn’t pay off. Skin, released in the summer of 1992, only sold around 190,000 copies and put two singles – “Drowning in Your Eyes” and “It Can’t Be Forever” – firmly in the lower middle of the Billboard Hot 100. Elektra wanted something more commercial, and broke Lewis away from Bacon and Quambry in favor of more established talent. (Lewis did session work for a never-completed solo album with master songwriter/producer Glen Ballard, responsible for co-writing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and producing major hit albums for Alanis Morrissette and the Dave Matthews Band.) By all accounts, Lewis was happy – optimistic about both his potential crossover appeal, his newfound financial comfort and his love life. (Lewis began dating Paul Flowers, a graduate student, in secret not long before embarking on his American trip to work on a second album.)
Within weeks, though, things took a horrific turn for the worse. On March 18, 1994, police responded to reports of a naked, drugged man in a Los Angeles apartment complex. That man was Lewis, and not long after the police response, Lewis had plummeted from the fourth-floor balcony of one of the apartments, suffering massive head injuries and dying later that night. Nearly everything about the incident is mired in controversy: autopsy reports detected traces of methamphetamines, while conflicting accounts have Lewis falling from the balcony after or because of a strike from a taser by police.
While the real story may never be known, Lewis left a small but notable body of work that did a fine job of indicating the talent he possessed – talent that was silenced far too soon. His work would be well represented by a Rhino Handmade-type expansion, which we’ve imagined here with an additional seven tracks (three non-LP B-sides and four remixes – if any usable material from sessions with Ballard exist, they’d certainly be worthwhile inclusions as well). With next year being the 20th anniversary of Skin, it may well be more of a possibility than one might think.
Ephraim Lewis, Skin: Expanded Edition (originally released as Elektra LP 61318, 1992)
- It Can’t Be Forever
- Drowning in Your Eyes
- Mortal Seed
- World Between Us
- Summer Lightning
- Rule for Life
- Sad Song
- Hold On
- Best of Every Year (U.K. B-side to “It Can’t Be Forever” – Elektra 12″ single EKR 146T, 1992)
- Dreams from the Trees (B-side to “Drowning in Your Eyes” – Elektra 64710, 1992)
- I Know I Don’t Walk on Water (from Made in America: Music from the Original Soundtrack – Elektra 61498, 1993)
- It Can’t Be Forever (Medici Mix) (12″ promo A-side – Elektra ED-5606, 1992)
- Drowning in Your Eyes (Flotation Mix) (U.K. 12″ A-side – Elektra EKR 151T, 1992)
- World Between Us (Monasterial Mix) (12″ A-side – Elektra 66384, 1992)
- Skin (Shiny Black Boots Mix) (U.K. 12″ A-side – Elektra EKR 163T, 1992)
A special thanks to the exhaustive Ephraim Lewis Fan Page for their knowledge and a shout-out to The Second Disc’s BFF Popblerd!, who likely now knows that it was his random YouTube link that inspired this post.