Rudy Lewis was born on August 23, 1936, and died on May 20, 1964 when he was 27 years and 271 days old. He was a member of the Drifters for several years and his voice can be heard as the lead on two of their biggest hits – Up On the Roof, and On Broadway. As a member of a vocal group it was his fate to be one of the most well-known voices on the radio at one time, and yet his name is virtually unknown to the public, in spite of an unsuccessful attempt at a solo career.
Lewis (real name: Charles Rudolph Harrell) was a singer of gospel music before he joined the Drifters, and replaced former lead vocalist Ben E. King in the group. In concert Lewis was able to sing the songs that King had made hits of with the Drifters, and he became a well-regarded member within a short time. He became an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as one of the Drifters.
While he was with the group and for a long time after his death (until 1996), his secret life was kept hidden from the public. He was a gay man who never came out to anyone in his family or to casual acquaintances – only a few close friends knew about his sexual orientation. He also started using heroin in his late teen years, and suffered from an eating disorder as well.
Ironically, while the hits that Lewis sang on were big ones, one of their biggest was scheduled to be recorded on May 21, 1964 with him singing the lead – Under the Boardwalk. That very morning Lewis was discovered deceased in his hotel room in Harlem, having died the night before. While an actual autopsy was not completed, his death was an apparent drug overdose, possibly with the further complication of a heart attack.
The fact that he was a closeted gay and black man, his involvement with opiates and other illegal drugs, and his eating disorder all would have made his life and death a classic rock and roll tragedy. But his death at the age of 27 grants him membership in an exclusive club within that realm of tragic deaths, as his voice is heard thousands of times a day on oldies radio all over the world.
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