This is a sad story. British singer Ephraim Lewis made a grand total of one album. It was called “Skin” and released in 1992 and was full of chilly, introspective, life affirming alt-soul. While overall it’s a pretty fine record, it’s also undeniably “of it’s time”, featuring very slick early 90’s production values ( faux strings, muted horns, shimmery backing vocals) and that pseudo electro-cool groove that became so common in the wake of Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”. Still, it’s full of sinewy, anthemic and memorable songs and the filler is minimal. And Lewis’s voice is absolutely beautiful, rising up from the bottom of the sea to the most glorious of falsettos with ridiculous ease. It sounds like a first album, full of promise, a few killer songs, and endless potential. And frankly, in that respect, it’s no different than Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”, another by no means definitive statement, despite the grand hyperbole regularly attached to it. Like “Grace”, it’s a snapshot of an ascending talent who was going to make something truly great in time.
While not perfect, there are some undeniably stunning moments on “Skin” , specifically the slinky, sinister groove of it’s initial single “It Can’t Be Forever”, the desperately keening title track, and the languid and sultry beauty of “Drowning In Your Eyes” (the latter being the finest recorded moment of Lewis’s career). The vocals are absolutely faultless throughout.
Elektra, Lewis’s label, believed in him wholeheartedly and why not, he had absolutely everything going for him, the voice, the looks, all of it. They had expectations and believed “Skin” would be big.
The video for “It Can’t Be Forever” received a bit of MTV airplay and the album garnered a few positive reviews and went on to sell over 100,000 copies worldwide. Pretty damn good for the debut of a previously unknown singer… but disappointing from a record company perspective based on the millions of promotional dollars that had been invested to launch it. Besides “Skin”, Lewis also contributed an ethereal beauty of a song on the forgettable “Made in America” soundtrack in 1993. And… that’s where it ends. That was all his recorded output. He never got to make his grand artistic statement, his big record. He was dead before he even reached his 27th birthday. He died in 1994 under dramatic, sordid, and still not quite explicable circumstances in LA while beginning the recording of what would have likely been his breakthrough 2nd album with none other than Glen Ballard, the legendary producer/writer behind Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill”.
His death wasn’t publicized and at that point in the technological universe, even though I was working in a mega record store, I didn’t hear about it until a month after it happened. It was shocking and extraordinarily sad news to say the least. Two years earlier I’d met Lewis at one of those old school record release party things set up by his label and he’d been a charismatic sweetheart. It was a pretty low key event to celebrate the release of his aforementioned debut album. The venue it was held in was decorated with cheap cardboard “flats” depicting the album cover and as apparently talking to him wasn’t enough for my immature, overly jacked up arse, I took the liberty of tearing one right off the wall in front of him, like you do, and having him sign it for me. He laughed and said “Ha, tear it right off why don’t you !”. This is it:
A bit battered and stained (from what I have no idea) as I had it hanging on my office wall, frameless and vulnerable from the next day onward. Anyway, he happily let me fangirl all over him, allowed me to ask inane questions and stand way closer to his person than I probably should’ve.
Admittedly, I was already a bit of a fan at that point and prior to that meeting had fallen pretty hard for his brand of spiritual, and sexy alt soul. Plus he was British which appealed to my obsessive Anglophile tendencies. He was important enough that for all these years I’ve kept that page at the top of this piece from a 1992 Vibe Magazine in an old portfolio case in my closet. Just never wanted to throw it away.
Here’s where things get complicated. Electra believed in Lewis’s potential and were willing to keep investing in him but they needed hits. Which to them meant casting aside his producers/co-writers from the unsuccessful ( in their eyes) first album, Bacon and Quarmby and connecting Lewis with someone with a proven track record, namely Glen Ballard ( who at that point had a myriad of big time credits to his name including co-writing Michael Jackson’s mega”Man in the Mirror”).
And things were changing not just professionally for Lewis, but personally. By 1993, he had parted ways with his long-time girlfriend and fallen in love with a man. According to Paul Flowers, his boyfriend at the time, Lewis said he’d never felt more contented or at peace with himself as he had within this new relationship.
In early 1994, Lewis headed to LA to begin work on his second album with Ballard. By all accounts he was feeling pretty good. And more comfortable with his sexuality. It was all coming together. But it only took a heartbeat’s worth of time for everything to crumble into pieces. While in LA, Lewis immersed himself in the local nightlife. Met people. Partied. And ultimately indulged in drugs.
On the night of March 18th, 1994 police were called to the apartment complex Lewis was staying at while recording in LA. He was creating a disturbance, yelling, climbing from balcony to balcony undressed and behaving in a disturbing manner that suggested he was having a bad reaction to some kind of drug he’d ingested ( post mortem reports support this). By the time he crashed through a top floor window, the police had physically reached him and there was a confrontation. Something occurred resulting in his falling off the top floor balcony onto the street below and suffering life ending head injuries as a result. Sordid, terrible, shocking. There’s been speculation that the police had something to do with this, that they’d tased him, which resulted in his panicking then jumping. Another story went that he’d threatened them with a makeshift “knife’ fashioned from a piece of broken glass from when he’d crashed through the top floor window and was in such a deranged state that he’d suddenly leapt off the building without prompting. We’ll never know.
It’s a terrible story. A terrible waste…but there remains this sweet old record out in there in the world you can still listen to right now, that’s worth listening too, that may really touch you. And there is also this heartbreakingly beautiful live performance which says more than anything we’ve offered here :
That voice huh ? Still makes me cry. Ephraim Lewis, he was something.
Listen to “Skin” on Spotify :