On June 22, drummer Gilson Lavis made a guest appearance with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes at a concert at The Forum in Kentish Town, London. And he came bearing a gift: an original portrait of Johnny himself, clutching a microphone and singing his heart out.
Lavis — the drummer for Squeeze, in its glory days, and a current member of Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra — has become increasingly serious about his artwork in recent years, and will be the subject of a show titled “In Tune With the Portraits” at the Salomon Arts Gallery in New York in September and October.
Among the pieces to be shown will be portraits of Jersey icons Bruce Springsteen, Southside and Jon Bon Jovi, along with Mick Jagger, Elvis Costello, Ron Wood, Sting, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong and others.
Lavis played drums for Squeeze from the mid-’70s to the early ’90s — the years when they were having their biggest hits, including “Tempted,” “Black Coffee in Bed” and “Another Nail in My Heart.” Soon after leaving, he reunited with his former Squeeze bandmate Jools Holland (who had gone solo about a decade earlier) in Holland’s popular Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.
He was an experienced drummer before joining Squeeze and, with the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, he gets to play with all kinds of guest artists. Over the course of his career, he has backed everyone from Chuck Berry to Paul McCartney, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton and Amy Winehouse.
“I paint what I see, really,” says Lavis, 66, in a phone call from his home in England. “What else would I paint? I mean, that’s what I see all the time. That’s what I’m in touch with, and that’s what stands in front of me.
“I very rarely see landscapes. I’m usually looking at dressing rooms, or stages, or the backsides of performers! So that’s what I paint. Not their backsides, of course!”
He works in acrylic on canvas board, or ink. The artists don’t pose for him (and, in some cases, are musicians whom he has never met, or legendary artists who are deceased.). He works from photographs, often using several of the same person, “and hopefully, do my best to create something original,” he says.
“I try to get their essence, of them performing, or them in moments that I’m privileged to see.”
Lavis studied art in his youth, but did not maintain an interest in it for most of his years as a professional musician. “Drumming took over, and all that time in Squeeze, I was too busy,” he says.
He picked it up again, though, about eight or nine years ago. “Once I started, it was like opening up the floodgates, and I just couldn’t stop,” he says. “It’s all been pouring out, ever since, to the point of irritating everybody around me!”
He wasn’t even looking for another new artistic outlet, but found himself doing it almost by accident.
He was having his teeth fixed in Budapest, and staying in a horrid rented apartment. “There was no entertainment, no radio, no TV,” he says. “It was freezing cold, in the middle of winter. And I was feeling rather sorry for myself. And all that was there was a pen and paper. And I started to sketch.
“I did a sketch of our tour manager with the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. I thought, ‘That looks quite good.’ I gave it to him, and he loved it so much that I think it stroked my ego, and prompted me to do another sketch, of my wife.
“Then I started to sketch everybody in the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, and Jools, and then all their wives, and their dogs. It just snowballed.”
After a few years of sketching, he tried painting.
“And here we are,” he says. “Five years later, I have the privilege of having an exhibition in New York. What a thrill.”
Chris Difford of Squeeze has been performing as a guest artist with the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra this summer. But a full reunion of Squeeze’s classic ’70s lineup is unlikely, Lavis says.
“Jools is really successful over here,” he says. “The whole Rhythm and Blues Orchestra and his career has really taken off, and we do very well. We play big stadiums and stuff over here and in Europe. So I doubt if it would happen. I don’t think Jools needs it, really.
“But who knows. Never say never. It would be lovely to do it, but I’m not sure it would ever happen.”
“Gilson Lavis: In Tune With the Portraits” will be presented at the Salomon Arts Gallery at 83 Leonard St. in Manhattan from Sept. 14 to Oct. 5. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m., and by appointment; visit salomonarts.com.
Here is a video of Lavis performing the blues standard, “Key to the Highway,” with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in London, on June 22.