Veronica Lewis‘ journey to the 2022 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival began on Craigslist.
That’s where her parents found “Margaret,” a free, century-old Massey & Co. piano for their then-4-year-old daughter.
By the 2nd grade, Lewis had composed an instrumental for a school talent show. Soon, she and Margaret were bashing out barrelhouse boogie-woogie à la Jerry Lee Lewis (no relation) and Fats Domino.
How a New Hampshire girl in the era of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift landed in the 1950s, even she can’t fully fathom.
“It just kind of found me,” Lewis, 18, says of her adopted genre. “I knew it was coming to me, and it came!”
The explosive results will be on display on Sept. 17, at 6 p.m. The talented teen, whose debut album You Ain’t Unlucky topped some blues charts last year, is the penultimate act at the free Festival, marking its 11th season on the historic Morristown Green.
Video: Veronica Lewis Sings ‘You Ain’t Unlucky’
James Langton’s New York All-Star Big Band gets the party started at noon. At 2 p.m., Frank Vignola’s Guitar Night at Birdland Band continues the Morristown jazz tradition of the late, great Bucky Pizzarelli. Canadian singer/trumpeter Bria Skonberg, a Festival favorite in 2015 and 2018, promises a mix of new material and classics at 4 pm.
After Lewis shows off her 12-bar roots, Walter Trout will reclaim the stage he took by storm four summers ago. If that performance was any indicator, the Ocean City native’s 8 pm headline set will wring just about every emotion that a Fender Stratocaster and 71 years of hard living are capable of delivering.
Lewis’ instrument of choice is an upright piano, advertised online, rescued from a barn, and inscribed “Margaret.”
“We still don’t know who Margaret is,” Lewis says of her surrogate sibling. “But when I was really young, and starting to really get excited about playing, I would tell myself, ‘Oh, you know, Margaret is getting lonely. I better go play with her!’”
Lewis loves Margaret’s sound so much, she used the piano to record three songs on her album: Whoo Whee Sweet Daddy, Fool Me Twice duck The Memphis Train.
The partnership paid off: Among debut blues albums, You Ain’t Unlucky charted no. 1 on iTunes and No. 2 on Billboard.
There is a Morristown connection to Lewis’ story, beyond the coincidence that Craigslist—where Margaret the Magic Piano was procured—was founded by a local guy, Craig Newmark.
For 60 years, Lewis’ late grandfather, Louis Leottaobtained from guide dogs The Seeing Eye. These faithful companions helped him navigate graduate school at Columbia University and the halls of St. Bonaventure University, where he chaired the department of American and Urban History.
Leotta might have pursued his passion for jazz bass, but calloused fingers interfered with reading Braille, says Lewis, who hopes to visit The Seeing Eye’s Morris Township campus after the Festival. She credits her grandfather with encouraging her eclectic musical tastes.
“He really instilled a love for finding music that I wanted to listen to…through him I found the curiosity to just listen to all different kinds of music.”
From that curiosity, she has forged a hard-charging style that has propelled her to venues across the country. Next spring, she will open for guitar great Joe Bonamassa on a cruise ship.
One reviewer has described Lewis’ sound as a soulful blend of Jerry Lee Lewis, Fiona Apple and Gwen Stefani. Living Blues Magazine hailed her as a “spellbinding… monster talent.” American Songwriter Magazine calls her “one of the most promising torchbearers of American Rock ‘n Roll.”
Lewis has a pair of Blues Music Nominations, for Best Emerging Artist Album and Pinetop Piano Player of the Year.
In 2020, she was named the Boston Music Awards Blues Artist of the Year.
Last year–the year she graduated from high school–Lewis won the Blues Blast New Artist Debut Album Award and the Blues Blast Sean Costello Rising Star Award. The New England Music Hall of Fame proclaimed her Best Young Artist.
She also was valedictorian at the International Connections Academy. She transferred to the online school just before the pandemic, to accommodate her touring schedule.
Before that, Lewis played piano and bass in the concert band at Georgetown High School, near her family’s home in Haverhill, MA. She spent chunks of her childhood across the state line in rural Keene, NH, her birthplace.
“New Hampshire is definitely where my heart is. Growing up in the woods, that’s where a lot of inspiration in my music comes from,” she says.
‘EVERY SECOND IS JUST A BLAST’
Lewis heard everything from jazz to classical and pop to punk from her parents’ collections. But another sound — served by YouTube, perhaps?–drove her to that Massey & Co. upright in the Haverhill living room.
“When I heard Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles and Kay Webster, there was something about what they were doing with the piano, and it was such a different way of playing it that I’d never heard.
“And I knew I just wanted to figure it out. So I just sat down at the piano and I kind of just taught myself,” recounts Lewis, who hasn’t lost her bubbly teenaged enthusiasm.
She loves the raw, authentic energy from these trailblazing musicians. “There’s definitely a fire in it,” she says.
While it may seem primal and visceral, early rock and roll is not so simple to master, she discovered.
The brain must roar into overdrive: The left hand pounds out the bass line, the right hand carries the melody.
Layer vocals on top, then add a band — guitarist Brad Dubaysax player Joel Edinburgh and drummer Mike Walsh — and you have a whole lotta shakin’ going on.
“It’s taken me, like, 14 years to figure it out,” Lewis says. “It all started with just the piano, and like one note in the right hand.”
She learned she could hold her own as a performer when she was just 12. At Silky O’Sullivan’s in Memphis, she followed Barbara Bluethe “Reigning Queen of Beale.”
“She had this full band with a horn section and guitars and drums and organ and piano. And I was just gonna go on solo, just me and a piano. I have never been more nervous before a show in my life!”
But once she started playing, all was well.
“After I got through that, I’ve never been nervous before a show,” Lewis says. She emerged confident in her ability to shut out stress and focus on the music, because it’s “100 percent me, and my biggest priority is sharing it with people and showing people who I am.”
Around that time, her songwriting skills began to blossom. A David Maxwell Memorial Scholarship sent her to the Pinetop Perkins Piano Workshop in Clarksdale, Miss.
On the long ride home, she wrote Clarksdale Sun, inspired by the blazing Mississippi heat, and The The Memphis Traina nod to her musical heroes. Put Your Wig on Mamaalso started when she was a tween, is dedicated to her mom, who now doubles as her manager.
Video: ‘Clarksdale Sun,’ which Veronica Lewis started writing at age 12:
Lyrics in the title track of Lewis’ album celebrate the late Dr. John, whose legacy she is determined to carry forward:
Some people think it’s bad that every cherry has a pit,
But inside every pit is a whole ‘nother tree
Lewis says she is her toughest critic. When watching early videos of herself, “It’s like, ‘Whoa, wow, really, that wasn’t good!'” she says with a laugh.
Ever eager to improve her game, she worked with a vocal coach, Pamela Stevens. Standing ovations for her cover of Louis Jordan’s Is You Is My Baby, at a 2019 gig in Peterborough, NH, told Lewis she made a smart choice.
The same goes for passing on high school proms and, for now, anyway, college.
“I’m so excited and happy about what I’m doing, and so grateful to be able to play my music and write and record all the time and perform that I don’t have time to miss anything else,” says Lewis, who is about to record her second album.
“Every second is just a blast.”
The Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival returns to the Morristown Green from noon to 10 pm on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. Founded by Mayor Tim Dougherty and sponsored by local businesses, the event is free to the public. Bring a lawn chair or blanket.
Video: Veronica Lewis sings ‘Is You Is My Baby’: