Happy Birthday Little Roy Lewis!

Little Roy Lewis is 80 today! 

Roy McArthur “Little Roy” Lewis Jr. was born and raised the youngest member of the bluegrass Gospel band, The Lewis Family, in Lincolnton, Georgia. He began playing the banjo at the age of six and won his first talent contest – at the Lincolnton High School auditorium – at eight years old. 

The following year he joined the family band after his older brother Esley entered the Army. 1953 was a significant year in Lewis’s career development, as hitherto the band had played local dates mostly; at churches and other Gospel singing events promoted by professional bands. Then they were booked to appear on some of Wally Fowler’s All-Night Singing Conventions, and they cut four sides at WJAT Radio Station, Swainsboro, Georgia. These were intended for Bibletone Records, but when they went out of business, they were released on the Sullivan label.  

The first master, Carry On, showed that Little Roy was at 11 years of age already a top-notch banjo player.

Lance LeRoy noted at about that time that there was, “a little Lewis boy in Lincoln County who pick[ed] the fire of a banjo.”

Also, they made some guest appearances on WJBF-TV in Augusta, newly established that October, before starting a regular noonday show in April 1954. The show remained on air for 38 years. 

Little Roy often stole the show with his skill playing banjo and his crazy antics on stage, and was so much of the focus of their entertaining shows. Perhaps that aspect made him somewhat under-appreciated in the world of bluegrass music. Nevertheless, he was – and still is – an excellent musician, with guitar and autoharp in his arsenal, and a fine singer despite comical sound effects on some songs. 

His skills didn’t go unnoticed by the discerning Sonny Osborne, who noted recently …. 

“Little Roy’s banjo style is the most unique. It’s not so much different than anything else you may hear, but what he hears and plays is very different, in that it fit the Lewis Family’s choice of songs and the way a 5 string banjo is made, or forced to fit that style of vocals. That in turn will tend to make The Lewis Family sound different than any other that I’ve heard. Roy has a very fast right hand and he just simply plays their songs.

I will add this about his ability to play the first string with his index finger in a normal forward or backward roll, which would be kinda hard to do, I think. But he makes it work for him and that’s all that is necessary. Wherever he is and who he’s with, that crowd of people is getting entertained.”

Little Roy appeared on all of his family’s albums, but about June 1963 he cut a few banjo records of his own, beginning with an EP on Starday Records (SEP-223).  

During the 1970s and 1980s he had five of his own albums, including a ‘best of’’collection, all released by Canaan Records.

Little Roy Lewis – Looking For A City – from the album Entertainer 

By the mid-2000s Lewis had already formed a new group with fiddle player and singer Lizzy Long, who performed with The Lewis Family in their later years. The duo, probably the most active of the Lewis Family off-shoot bands, has played and continue to do so as The Little Roy & Lizzy Show, and has released about 10 albums during the past 15 years. 

Doyle Lawson recalls this prank from his days with the Country Gentlemen….. 

“Little Roy was always looking for a chance to entertain and came onstage during one of our shows and was doing anything he could think of to be disruptive, and was having much success in doing so. Bill Yates grabbed his bass cover and he and I stuffed Roy into it. Roy quickly said, ‘zip it up and drag me off stage,’ which we proceeded to do. We went back and finished our show and not realizing that he couldn’t unzip the bass cover, and we learned later that it took some time for him to get free. A slight miscalculation of which I apologized to Roy for but will again to be sure he heard! 

Happy Birthday ‘Little Roy,’ you are truly a Gospel and Bluegrass music Original!”

Joe Ross, a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and journalist living in Roseburg, Oregon, sends…

“…a very sincere congratulations on turning 80, as well as having a very successful half century music career that’s produced more than a hundred albums of bluegrass Gospel music on a variety of labels. It’s also been 20 years since The Lewis Family received IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 2002. 

My very best wishes to you for continued success with the Little Roy and Lizzie Long Show.”

Fred Bartenstein has had a distinguished and multi-faceted career in bluegrass music stretching over 50 years …  

“I think the first time I encountered Little Roy and the Lewis Family was at Shindig in the Barn in Pennsylvania during the late 1960s. After that, I worked with them countless times at festivals produced by Carlton Haney, Jim Clark, Mac Wiseman, and Bill Monroe. Roy was invariably kind, businesslike, and competent. I remember his amazing bus driving skills, guiding the Lewis Family’s big vehicle into and out of muddy fields. He has always been one of my favorite banjo players: his clean, aggressive attack shines through and branded the Lewis Family as undeniably a bluegrass act. 

I will leave it to others to recall Little Roy’s noteworthy onstage high jinx, in my day typically co-engineered with Sonny Osborne. 

Roy, many happy returns on the noteworthy occasion of your eightieth birthday!”

Rhonda Vincent & The Rage with former festival promotor and friend Norman and Judy Adams …. 

Gary Henderson remembers when he was MC, circa 1972 or 1973, at the Indian Springs Bluegrass Festival, established by Pete Kuykendall and the staff of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine …. 

“The Lewis Family were booked often, and Little Roy delighted in picking on me and Sonny Osborne on the stage. Sonny and I were good natured and went along with the gag, always receiving a lot of laughs from the audience. Roy and I were good friends, and the Lewis family were so supportive of the magazine’s effort in supporting and preserving our bluegrass music. 

This Round Mound of Sound would like to wish Little Roy Lewis a very Happy and fun-filled eightieth birthday! 80 years young, with more jokes and pranks to come— Watch Out!”

Claire Lynch has been involved in bluegrass music since the so-called revival of the 1970s, enjoying many years fronting the Front Porch String Band and, since 2005, her own Claire Lynch Band … 

“It was the 1990s. The Front Porch String Band and I were beginning to make enough of a mark on the bluegrass world that we were being invited to festivals three states away from our home base in Alabama. We had played at festivals down in Georgia and Florida with the Lewis Family and always enjoyed seeing them perform, but I wasn’t aware that they knew who we were.     

It was at a small festival in Virginia that we ran into Little Roy Lewis again. I’d seen how he clowned around with the Osborne Brothers when they were on stage. But I had no idea he’d sabotage our show! It was more than halfway through the set, and I was singing Mr. Bo Jangles when he waltzed onto the stage with a broom and began sweeping in 3/4 time. Every once in a while, when he got behind me, he’d whisk the broom up off the floor and slap me in the behind with it. You can imagine my embarrassment! But everyone else thought it was hilarious – including my band members. I’ll never forget that as long as I live!     

After the set, he complimented our band and said something like, ‘Y’all are a good band but you need to play LOUDER!’ Of course, he pronounced it ‘LAO-DUH!’ with his unmistakable South Georgia accent. From then on, ‘Play louder!’ was a running joke within the band. God love him! No matter where Little Roy’s been… he’s brought a bright, happy spot to us all.

Here’s wishing you the sweetest birthday yet, Little Roy! Hang in there, baby!”

Little Roy Lewis has been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (1992), SPGBMA Hall of Greats (1994), IBMA Hall of Fame (2006), and the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2013).

A Discography 

Little Roy Lewis

  • Gospel Banjo (Canaan CAS-9722LP, released January 1973)
  • Little Roy Lewis – Entertainer (Canaan CAS-9811, 1977)
  • Super Pickin’ (Canaan CAS-9870, 1981)
  • The Heart Of Dixie (Canaan CAS-9911, 1984)
  • The Best Of Little Roy Lewis (Canaan SPCN 7-01-993313-9 [CAS-9933], 1985)

Little Roy Lewis, Earl Scruggs and Lizzy Long

  • Lifetimes (Mountain Home MH 1118-2, May 1, 2007)

Lizzy Long and Little Roy Lewis / Little Roy and Lizzy Show

  • Front Porch Pickin’ (Crossroads Music VR 39733, May 20, 2008)
  • Breaking Like Dawn (Crossroads Music 1326, May 20, 2009) 
  • Straight From The Heart Of Dixie (Crossroads Music VR 10422, April 20, 2010) 
  • Tradition With A Twist (Vine, July 2, 2011) 
  • Lord In The Morning (Pisgah Ridge PR 14052, August 7, 2012) 
  • Pop! Goes The Banjo (Vine TMS 7368, June 4, 2013)
  • Good Time, Down Home (StowTown STR 3166, April 29, 2016)
  • Going Home (StowTown STR 3187, May 5, 2017)
  • American Classics (Featuring the Autoharp) (StowTown, May 4, 2018)
  • 10 (StowTown, May 31, 2019)

Lizzy Long

  • Blueberry Pie (Vine Records VRO 12490, 2015) 

These are in addition to the vast Lewis Family catalog. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.