Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Lewis Calvin "Lew" DeWitt (12 March 1938–15 August 1990), musician and songwriter, was born in Roanoke County and was the son of Lewis Calvin DeWitt and Rose Esther Hogan DeWitt. In his youth he learned to play the guitar and mandolin and developed the strong tenor singing voice that became his trademark. While DeWitt was still in grade school his family moved to Staunton, where he befriended Phil Balsley, Joe McDorman, and Harold Reid. By their teenage years the four had begun to sing together, and in June 1955 they performed "A Little Talk with Jesus" at a local church. Emboldened by the positive reception, they dubbed themselves the Four Star Quartet and began performing regionally at churches and talent shows. They were modestly successful, but DeWitt had to drive a taxicab to supplement his income.

Early Career
The Four Star Quartet disbanded about 1958, and Lew DeWitt moved to Baltimore to look for work and to gain experience playing guitar in the city's clubs. In 1960 Harold Reid persuaded DeWitt and Balsley to re-form the quartet, although Reid's younger brother Don Reid replaced McDorman. Renamed the Kingsmen, the quartet sang gospel music, but they also performed separate programs of country or popular music tailored for particular venues. The group sang on local radio stations, including WTON in Staunton, and headlined their own show on WSIG in Shenandoah County. After the Kingsmen began appearing weekly on the Roanoke television station WDBJ, they discovered that audiences were confusing them with an already-established North Carolina gospel group with the same name. DeWitt's quartet adopted the Statler Brothers as a moniker after spying the name on a box of Statler-brand tissues during a rehearsal.

The Statler Brothers
In 1961 DeWitt married Glenda Kay Simmers in Baltimore, Maryland. They had two sons and two daughters. The Statler Brothers began garnering increased attention. In 1963 the group opened for Johnny Cash in Berryville and eventually won a spot in his road show. Beginning in March 1964 the Statler Brothers toured with Cash for more than eight years. Cash also secured for them a recording contract with Columbia Records. Their first two releases experienced disappointing sales, but their fortunes changed dramatically in 1965 when a third single, "Flowers on the Wall," climbed to number two on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart and number four on the magazine's Hot 100 pop chart. This song of rejection, written by DeWitt, featured brooding lyrics and a pensive melody that found resonance with the emerging youth counterculture. It eventually became the song with which the Statler Brothers were most readily identified outside country music circles, even though it contrasted sharply with the more-traditional material they later recorded.

The rigors of life on the road took their toll on DeWitt and exacerbated a stomach ailment with which he had suffered for years. His recurring attacks of debilitating pain interfered with his work and often forced the Statler Brothers to cancel or postpone engagements. While on tour in the mid-1960s DeWitt was diagnosed with regional enteritis, a form of Crohn's disease, and underwent surgery. Advised that stress could trigger DeWitt's symptoms, the other three members of the Statler Brothers took over his nonmusical obligations to the band.

In 1970 the Statler Brothers took two key steps in their transition from the crossover success of "Flowers on the Wall" to a popular, mainstream country act. That autumn a producer for Mercury Record Productions, Inc., recruited the group to the label, which issued a string of country hits over the course of the band's career. Earlier that year, the Statler Brothers organized and performed a Fourth of July concert, dubbed Happy Birthday U.S.A., in Staunton's Gypsy Hill Park. Local charities handled vending at the event, an answer to the growing number of Staunton organizations requesting benefit performances by the Statler Brothers. Happy Birthday U.S.A. was only modestly attended the first year, but the annual event grew in popularity and before long had to be moved to a larger venue in order to accommodate the growing numbers of fans (10,000 in attendance by 1975). The Statler Brothers left Johnny Cash's road show in 1972. DeWitt and his wife divorced on 26 July 1973, and that September he married Joyce Anne Arehart. This marriage had ended in divorce by 16 February 1980, when DeWitt married Judy Fitzgerald Wells.

After finishing a tour in California, DeWitt was admitted to the hospital in November 1981. He alerted the band that he was going to require an extended recuperation and recommended Jimmy Fortune, a Nelson County singer, as a temporary replacement. DeWitt briefly returned to the Statler Brothers in April 1982 to help finish their latest album, The Legend Goes On. He appeared with the group for the last time when it hosted the annual Music City News Awards show on 7 June 1982. Suffering from a return of his symptoms, DeWitt realized that retirement from the Statler Brothers was his best option. Late in June 1982 he shared his decision with the group, and Jimmy Fortune stepped in as DeWitt's permanent replacement. The public learned of his departure officially at that year's Happy Birthday U.S.A. concert.

During DeWitt's tenure, the Statler Brothers performed at the White House three times, and late in the 1960s they had appeared regularly on Johnny Cash's television shows and specials. DeWitt's "Flowers on the Wall" helped secure the group the first two of its three Grammys, for Best Contemporary Performance by a Group and Best New Country and Western Artist for the awards honoring music in 1965. The quartet also captured Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for its 1972 single "Class of '57." Beginning in 1972 the Country Music Association honored the quartet for six consecutive years as Vocal Group of the Year. After missing out on the honor in 1978, the Statler Brothers won the following two years as well. The quartet also received seventeen Music City News Awards through 1982 across categories ranging from their albums to comedic skills. Forty-four songs recorded during DeWitt's tenure, including three of his own compositions ("Flowers on the Wall," "I'm the Boy," and "The Movies") and two cowritten with Don Reid ("Pictures" and "Thank You World") reached Billboard's country charts. The Statler Brothers recorded twenty-five albums during DeWitt's career with the group.

Solo Career
DeWitt continued to perform after he and the Statler Brothers parted ways. He played a less-strenuous schedule with his new Star City Band, and he moved from the Statlers' home base of Staunton to the Waynesboro area. In 1984 he initiated what became an annual appearance at Waynesboro's Summer Extravaganza. He also released two solo albums, On My Own (1985) and Here to Stay (1986).

In the face of declining health, Lewis Calvin "Lew" DeWitt retired from the music business in 1989. He died on 15 August 1990 of heart and kidney disease at his Augusta County home near Waynesboro, and his remains were cremated. The reconstituted Statler Brothers performed and toured together until 2002. The Gospel Music Hall of Fame inducted the Statler Brothers in 2007, and the following year the Country Music Hall of Fame inducted them.

Sources Consulted:
Alice Y. Holtin, comp., The Statler Brothers Discography (1997); Harold Reid and Don Reid, The Statler Brothers: Random Memories (2007); birth, marriage, and divorce dates and birthplace confirmed by Virginia Division of Vital Records and Health Statistics; information provided by son Denver DeWitt (2009) and Don Reid (2009); Commonwealth 48 (July 1981): 27–34 (portraits); Staunton Leader, 26, 27 Aug. 1982; Staunton Daily News Leader, 1 July 1994; Waynesboro News Virginian, 24 Mar. 2008; Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, 2d ed. (1983), 700–701; obituaries in Waynesboro News-Virginian, 15 Aug. 1990 (variant birthplace of Bedford Co.), Richmond Times-Dispatch and Staunton Daily News Leader (variant birthplace of Bedford Co.), both 16 Aug. 1990, and New York Times, 17 Aug. 1990; editorial tribute in Waynesboro News-Virginian, 16 Aug. 1990.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Jacques Vest.

How to cite this page:
Jacques Vest,"Lewis Calvin 'Lew' DeWitt (1938–1990)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=DeWitt_Lew, accessed [today's date]).

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