It was an act of ill-judged parental control that propelled Nancy Lewis towards the music business. One day, during her childhood, she sneaked round to a friend’s house without permission to watch Elvis Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. When she got back home she found that her father had, by way of punishment, burnt all her Elvis pictures, magazines and records. From that day forward pop music became, for her, an achingly cool expression of rebellion.
Born in 1943 in Detroit, Michigan, Nancy Carol Lewis grew up in a strict household ruled by her father, Mack, a member of the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical Christian sect. Undeterred by his zealotry, she studied TV and radio production at Michigan State University, served as campus correspondent for Billboard and became hooked on British pop music.
After a stint at NBC she turned down the offer of a permanent job and, in 1965, bought a return ticket to London with a friend. With $130 spending money each, they were set to tour around Europe, but Lewis got no farther than London, where she immediately immersed herself in the burgeoning music scene.
Hendrix and the Who
It was in the days when bands and those in the know mixed freely in the clubs. Once she had landed a job as feature writer on Fabulous magazine, she was seemingly welcomed everywhere. It helped that she had also moved into a house-share in Chiswick with Jack Barrie, who ran the Marquee Club, thus ensuring free club entry.
The music business was a small world then, and it was not long before Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the Who’s managers, approached Lewis to be director of public relations for New Action, their management company, and their newly formed record label, Track Records. In addition to the Who, Lewis was also promoting Jimi Hendrix, Marsha Hunt, Thunderclap Newman and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. In 1967 she moved to New York to open an American office for Track. She would subsequently divide her time between London and New York, working first for Track and then Island Records.
All the Clubs
Her British friend Vicki Wickham, who was the producer of Ready Steady Go! before moving to New York to manage Patti LaBelle, recalled: “In Track days we dined at the Russian Tea Room every day. We would go there at lunchtime and never leave — it was our office. They would put a phone on the table. Kit [Lambert] would often join us. In London we’d go to all the clubs with Kit. Once in the Revolution, when we were trying to go on somewhere and the waiter wouldn’t bring the bill, Kit set fire to the lampshade hanging over our booth. The bill soon came.”
Lewis, who was softly spoken, charming and with a genuine interest in other people, was in many ways more English than American in her outlook. She could, however, be dogged in the pursuit of just causes. The fact that the comedy team Monty Python, a cult hit in the UK, were making no headway in the US rankled. Many Americans simply could not comprehend the Pythons’ brand of humour, but they made Lewis laugh out loud. By this time she was working as PR for Buddah Records in New York and persuaded the company to do a US distribution deal for the British label Charisma, primarily to launch Genesis in the US, but including the two Monty Python albums.
In programme notes for No Naughty Bits, the 2011 play about the Pythons that was staged at Hampstead Theatre, Lewis recalled her first meeting with them in Toronto during their Canadian tour in 1973. “I climbed up to the top deck of a double-decker bus that had come to collect them from the airport. However, my excitement was quickly thwarted when the first words from John Cleese were, ‘Lovely to meet you and thank you for doing so much to promote us, but on the flight over we decided we’re not doing any more shows as Monty Python.’ It’s an understatement to say I felt as if he’d punched me in the stomach.”
“The first words from John Cleese were, ‘Lovely to meet you and thank you for doing so much to promote us, but on the flight over we decided we’re not doing any more shows as Monty Python.’”
Fortunately, Cleese thawed and Lewis continued her promotional campaign. “She virtually put her job on the line by managing to book us on top shows such as Johnny Carson and The Midnight Special,” Michael Palin said. “And far from discouraging her, the fact that these appearances were met with complete incomprehension only caused Lewis to redouble her efforts to introduce Python to her homeland. Her patience was rewarded the next year, when, almost too ecstatic to speak, she called me to say that PBS had taken the shows for America. What followed in the next few weeks was a growing number of similar calls as Python swept the college circuit right across the States, becoming a massive cult hit.”
Lewis soon became the Pythons’ US manager and, in 1976, her tenacity was again put to the test when the BBC sold some of the Python shows to ABC television without the group’s permission. Terry Jones, encouraged by Lewis, suggested legal action, and she had to testify with Palin and Terry Gilliam in New York’s federal courthouse. They lost that round, but won on appeal.
“The Key to the Hospitality Fridge”
She went on to promote their films Holy Grail and Life of Brian in the US and was in charge of publicity on their 1983 film The Meaning of Life, where she met her future husband, the British actor Simon Jones. He had just finished filming Privates on Parade with John Cleese, who invited him along.
Jones recalled: “On set for much of the time was an American lady in large sunglasses often balanced on the top of her head. She had the most infectious smile and I immediately took a shine to her. It may also have been, as we always joked, that in her capacity as head of Python relations she had the key to the hospitality fridge. She wasn’t at all keen on me because she’d seen me as ‘Bridey’ in the recent Brideshead Revisited, and she imagined I was likely to be stuffy and humourless. But I soon persuaded her otherwise, and a year later we were married at St Paul’s, Covent Garden.”
Python Props and a Dentist’s Chair
Douglas Adams had written the part of Arthur Dent in the hugely popular BBC radio series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for Jones and, realising the BBC was not doing any US promotion on the TV series, Lewis set to work. Jones credits her with launching him as an actor in America.
Throughout their marriage they juggled Jones’s work commitments between their homes in London and New York, where their flat was ruled by a cantankerous cat called Higgins. When Jones’s plays went on tour, Lewis went along, as did their young son Tim, who now works for a film company.
Lewis and Jones were hoarders and their flats bulged with pictures and theatrical memorabilia, including Dent’s dressing gown, Monty Python props, Victorian stuffed animals and a dentist’s chair. They maintained a host of friends in both countries and Jones drew a family Christmas card every year that always featured Lewis in her sunglasses.
Nancy Lewis, publicist and manager, was born on February 20, 1943. She died, after a short illness, on December 20, 2019, aged 76