Bobby Lewis, singer of “Tossin’ & Turnin’,” died on April 28 after contracting pneumonia. The news — initially reported but not widely circulated in late April — was announced by his granddaughter Sabreen LaRae Simmons on Facebook, and has been confirmed to Billboard by his son, the author Zain Abdullah. He was 95.
Lewis was born in Indianapolis and raised in an orphanage, eventually moving to a foster home in Detroit at age 12. When he was 14, he ran away from home and began to perform as a singer, eventually moving to New York. After spending some time on Mercury Records, he was convinced by singer-songwriter Ritchie Adams to record a song he’d co-written as a one-off for the smaller Beltone label.
That song was 1960’s “Tossin’ & Turnin’,” a kinetic R&B rave-up as restless as the insomnia Lewis described in its lyrics, which exploded commercially in 1961. The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on July 10th of that year, staying there for seven weeks — an unusually long reign in the chart’s early history — and ultimately topping Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 for 1961. In 2018, it landed at No. 36 on Billboard’s all-time Hot 100, fourth-highest of any song from the ’60s.
Lewis’ time in the mainstream was relatively brief. After scoring one more top 10 hit (“One Track Mind,” No. 9) that October, he only hit the Hot 100 twice more, and never again made the top 40. “Tossin’ & Turnin’” endured in the cultural memory, though, in large part due to its prominent use in two hit comedies of the ’70s, both set in the early ’60s: American Graffiti (1973) and Animal House (1978). The song has also been covered by acts ranging from girl groups The Marvelettes and The Supremes to rockers Peter Criss and Joan Jett.
The singer spent the last four decades of his life in New Jersey, with his final years spent at the Forest Hill Healthcare Center in Newark. He continued to play live well into his 80s — though vision problems made performing challenging, and he described himself as “virtually blind” to NJ.com in 2011. “It’s like Stevie (Wonder) said: We all have that inner vision,” he explained. “That helps a lot.”
Lewis is survived by three children — Fonda Simmons, Marva Brooks and Zain Abdullah, born Zayne Lewis — as well as by 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Abdullah tells Billboard that he is writing a father-son memoir, for which he’s interviewed his father extensively, and that there will be both a memorial and tribute concert to Lewis, which he began planning even before his father’s death. Artists interested in playing the tribute concert can sign up for it here.