Quite a few biographies in jazz history seem to include a sentence that goes something like this: "He got his professional start with Sabby Lewis' band in Boston." Among the star players who seemed to have been savvy of Sabby at just the right time are tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, trumpeter Cat Anderson, and drummers Roy Haynes and Alan Dawson. In other words, slouches none. How typical of jazz, of course, that so few fans would have actually heard of Sabby Lewis himself, the exception being Boston's jazz community. His lack of dignitary status in the genre at large surely has something to do with him deciding to stay put in the town of beans for a large part of his later career. Lack of fame also must have run in a vicious circle with the relatively paltry nature of Lewis' recording activities.
The man born William Sebastian Lewis in North Carolina was mostly associated with the New England jazz scene from the mid-'30s on. Discographer Tom Lord has found that as far as jazz goes, Lewis was involved in only eight recording sessions between 1944 and 1956. Outside of Lord's realm of swinging music, Lewis also had a small career putting out R&B, doo wop, and novelty material, including singles such as "Ding-Dong" and "Regretting," the latter bit of mope released under the band name of Sabby Lewis & the Vibra Tones. Also working as a disc jockey, Lewis might not have been in the best position to hype his own recordings, but at any rate his fame in the radio community has more to do with him as a person than any particular record he spun. Lewis is considered to have been possibly the first black disc jockey to go on the air in Boston, period.
Lewis' initial professional gigs were in the early '30s. He was a member of Taskar Crosson's Ten Statesmen, a band with an auspicious name that was actually one of the only units Lewis worked in that he didn't himself assume membership of. Lewis' outfits varied in size between large and small -- on a 1946 recording date, he had both options going. During this decade his activities included long stints at venues such as New York City's Club Zanzibar. If anything affected his decisions regarding the size of groups in subsequent decades, it was the music business itself, pushing aside the once ruling big band format for smaller combos. He remained gigging, mostly in the Boston area, except for a period recovering from a car crash in 1963.