Gary Lewis felt right at home entertaining the Paisans Club Sunday and also found time to remember Chuck Berry and offer a love song to his wife.
Lewis, the son of famed comedian Jerry Lewis, talked about his Italian heritage during a jam-packed concert at SeaBreeze Regional Recreation Center.
“My father is Jewish but my mother (Patti) is an Italian-Catholic,” Gary Lewis said. “I gravitated to my mother. She used to take me to church every Sunday.”
Lewis sold nearly 45 million records during his remarkable singing career in the 1960s, and has been touring ever since.
Like many rock and rollers, Lewis has an appreciation for Chuck Berry, who died Saturday.
“Chuck Berry made great music,” Lewis said during a backstage interview. “It was straight ahead rock and roll and that’s the kind of music I love.”
Among those in attendance, was Lewis’ wife, Donna and the singer paid tribute to her during one of his most popular songs, “Just My Style.”
“Back in the summer of 1965, I wrote this song with Leon Russell,” Lewis said.
“Tonight I want to dedicate it to a special person – my wife, Donna, who is sitting right here in front.”
It was a cozy, festive atmosphere throughout the show. Lewis sang his big hits, including “This Diamond Ring,” “Count Me In” and “Save Your Heart for Me.”
Normally, an act of Lewis’ stature would not play for a local club, but the Paisans aren’t a typical social club.
“We’ve got a big budget for entertainment,” said Jerry Vicenti, president of the Paisans. “This is a special night to have someone the caliber of Gary Lewis playing for our club. He’s a high-end act. It took a lot of hard work but we raised the money to bring him here.”
The Paisans Club gets things done in hurry. Vicenti wanted to do something for St. Joseph’s Day on Sunday, so the club went out an ordered about 330 pastries, which looked like Cannoli on steroids.
“When I was a kid in New York, every St. Joseph’s Day I had to run to the bakery to get pastries,” Vicenti said. “So today, I did it again. For me, it was like old times.”
When the Paisans get together, it’s like a big Italian wedding. And Jerry Vicenti and his wife, Annette, are like the parents of the bride.
“Sometimes I feel that way,” Annette said. “We all have a good time and we all come together to celebrate our club and our friendship.”
Of course, you won’t find a band like Gary Lewis’s crew at most weddings.
“I had all his records and hearing him sing tonight brings back so many memories,” said Villager Sandra Lee Clark, who attended the concert with her husband, Larry.
“When you hear those songs again, it takes you back to old times and old friends,” she said. “I guess it’s nostalgia but it’s more than that; it makes you feel good.”
Gary Lewis’ wife Donna believes he gets just as much out of performing as the audience.
“He loves singing and he loves entertaining people,” she said. “Gary loves being in front of an audience. He’ll always be singing.”
Especially in The Villages.
“I’ve been here many times and being in The Villages is totally cool,” Lewis said. “I’ve had a lot of happy times here.”
But Lewis has faced challenges in his life. In 1967, at the height of his career, he was drafted in the Army and served in Vietnam and Korea.
“I was treated right when I came home, but too many Vietnam veterans weren’t,” Lewis said. “I hated the way our veterans were treated when they came home. I will do whatever I can to help them.”
Lewis has been a staunch advocate for veterans’ causes. “I feel great about doing whatever I can to help veterans,” he said.
When one Villager came up to see Lewis backstage and told the singer he served during the Vietnam era, Lewis shook his hand, looked him in the eye and said: “welcome home.”