The man behind Mandré
by Melissa Weber aka DJ Soul Sister
Techno-funk pioneer Andre Lewis—bandleader of Maxayn, mastermind of Mandré, and an unsung music-technology innovator—took his final “Solar Flight” on January 31, 2012, passing away in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Lewis is well known for his involvement with the early ’70s soul-rock group Maxayn (which featured his lifelong friend and musical collaborator Maxayn Lewis) and for his late ’70s/early ’80s future-funk project known as Mandré. Criminally under-recognized are his contributions as a pioneer in recording synthesizers and his early championing of drum-machine technology. He was one of the first American recording artists to introduce Roland drum synthesizers (including the legendary Roland TR-808) and was a major contributor to the design of Roger Linn’s LinnDrum digital drum machine.
“Andre was talking about MIDI and layering sound before anyone else,” Maxayn said earlier this month. “He was on the cutting edge.” Because he was also a beta tester for Roland musical instruments, he would get new products that no one else had, and he’d get them first.
“Every day, we were receiving equipment. And we would have what I called parties,” Maxayn remembers. “I’d make food, and all of the biggest artists would come through our house and check out our instruments. Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, you name it. We had the first generation of synthesizers. You couldn’t go to a store to get them. You’d have to come to our parties.”
While Lewis’s musicianship is highly regarded, his work on developing the landmark LinnDrum drum machine is less recognized. “I’d be in bed and wake up, and Roger [Linn] was there asking Andre how to fix something that he couldn’t make work,” Maxayn says. “Then Roger would leave, and he’d come back again, minutes later, needing more of Andre’s help.”
Born in Nebraska, Michael Andre Lewis was a child prodigy who led his own Mike Lewis Quartet at age fifteen, and then led his Andre Lewis and the New Breed, which included future members of the Electric Flag as well as Hank Redd, who would go on to work with Stevie Wonder. He wound up joining the band of his childhood friend Buddy Miles and appeared on several of his albums, including Them Changes.
Lewis met Maxayn at a Chicago tour stop while in the Buddy Miles band. “He looked like he was from another planet, dressed in the leather, dyed velvet, knee high boots,” Maxayn jokes. Lewis’s groundbreaking work with synthesizers began to take shape with the three albums that he and Maxayn’s band released under the name Maxayn for Capricorn Records: Maxayn (1972), Mindful (1973), and Bail Out for Fun (1974).
“Then Andre wanted to try some other things with synthesized music and techno-funk. That whole genre of music should be credited to him,” Maxayn says. Enter the three brilliantly space-aged and intergalactic-sounding albums he recorded under the name Mandré: Mandré (1977), Two (1978), and M3000 (1979), released for perhaps the most unlikely of labels, Motown Records, who promoted the group as being “funkier than Parliament.”
The concept was, as Maxayn describes, “controversial.” Andre was to perform in a futuristic mask because “he thought the music sounded other-worldly. He was to be the Masked Marauder, a mystery man sent from space to create peace on Earth through the [sound] frequencies.” Famed costume designer Bill Whitten custom-made a mask to fit Andre’s face and make it easier to breath during performances.
The self-titled debut spawned the synthesizer-heavy hit “Solar Flight (Opus I),” considered an underground dance classic and also briefly used as a theme song for ABC Television’s Wide World of Sports.
“The [Mandré] records were well received by the public,” says Maxayn. “Berry Gordy really liked it a lot, but it wasn’t an R&B act. Motown understood the importance, but had no idea how to market him.” Despite the custom-built mask and a second hit in 1979 with “Freakin’s Fine,” Mandré never toured and only performed live a couple of times.
In 1982, he recorded and released his final Mandré album, 4, for his own Future Groove label, singing and playing clavinet, organ, piano, bass, vocoder, and Roland synthesizers. The only Mandré album to be reissued to date (Rush Hour Recordings in 2010), 4 would also be the hardest Mandré LP to find due to a freak accident. “A smoke alarm at the pressing plant set off sprinklers and it ruined the whole run,” Maxayn says. “Only a few of those copies…that could be salvaged made it to the record stores.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, still highly regarded in the industry, Lewis toured and recorded regularly with Frank Zappa, Roky Erickson, the Who, Labelle, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, among others.
Maxayn remains active as a vocal coach and performer and is currently planning a musical “celebration of life” that will be held at the Maverick’s Flat, the club where the Maxayn band first performed in L.A.
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The author, Melissa A. Weber, performs as the famed DJ Soul Sister in New Orleans, Louisiana. She would like to thank Maxayn Lewis and the Masked Marauder.