Lewis, best known for his small group approach to big band drumming, was one of the first drummers to vary the ride cymbal beat, giving the music a loose and swinging feel. His commanding presence never dominated the spotlight and always stressed the interplay between the band members. How much you stick in depends on how much you can hear, Lewis explained, and if you're really hearing, you'll put in only what's necessary.
Mel Lewis was born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, New York to Russian immigrant parents. His father was a drummer in the Buffalo area who inspired his son to follow in his footsteps from an early age. Still in his mid-teens, young Lewis played with nationally known jazz musicians Harold Austin and Lenny Lewis. Early credits also include stints with Bernie Burns (1946), Boyd Raeburn (1948), Alvino Rey (1948-9), Ray Anthony (1949-50, 1953-54), and Tex Beneke (1950-53). In 1954 he joined Stan Kenton's band, playing alongside such musicians as Jimmy Giuffre, Maynard Ferguson, Laurindo Almeida, Vido Musso, and vocalist June Christy. During his three-year tenure with Kenton, Lewis also worked and recorded with the Frank Rosolino quintet and the Hampton Hawes Trio.