Sherri Lewis

Turn Up the Radio
AIDS interrupted by dreams—but I’ve learned to reclaim them
by Sherri Lewis

Photo by Peitor Angell

The best time in my life was being a signed recording artist. New York City in the early eighties was exactly where I wanted to be. Just twenty-six years old, it was prime time with my boyfriend/composer Zecca and our band Get Wet. From the first photo shoot to hitting the stage at Max’s Kansas City for our first gig on September 2, 1979, and being discovered by Lou Reed, it was a whirlwind of record companies and recording studios. How could anything go wrong?

In the midst of our good fortune stood the grim reaper. We signed on the dotted line with a dying man, record mogul Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records (Kiss, The Village People, Donna Summer, Cher) on the West Coast. There was no way of knowing he was very ill. We— Sherri Beachfront and Get Wet—were to be the crown jewel of his new label, Boardwalk Entertainment. It was a first-class ride with multi-Grammy winning producer, Phil Ramone (Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett). Together with Billy Joel, Paul Simon and Quincy Jones, we attended the Grammys. The fledgling MTV Network had two Get Wet videos in rotation. We hit top 40 with our original single “Just So Lonely,” and that led to appearances on Merv Griffin, Solid Gold, and American Bandstand. The tension in the studio led to Zecca and me breaking up, both personally and professionally. To fulfill our commitment for a European promotional tour, the label suggested I bring my guitar player. Three weeks later, when I returned my lawyer called to tell me that Boardwalk was going bankrupt and was buying me out of my contract, but I had other offers. With no manager and burnt out from two years of non-stop gigs, I said no and took a year off. Devastated I picked up some gigs but really wasn’t coping until I got clean and sober two years later.

The happiest time in my life was meeting my husband. He was a blues guitarist and a single parent with a fifteen-year-old son. We hoped to have a family of our own. I was excited about life again and returning to my career. But on April 12, 1987, the music stopped when I was diagnosed with HIV and handed a death sentence. I was relieved when my fiancé tested negative and married me in spite of his friends’ advice.

Like many of us living with HIV/AIDS in the darkest years I became an activist. Scooped up by a Harvard professor in my twelve-step meeting, I was invited to speak and hired to work on a research grant. For the next several years, I would be counseling, testing addicts, giving results, and attending funerals. I would come home from work crying at the dire circumstances people had and grateful for what I had, a home and a family. For relief I kept singing at benefits. But I missed my special lavender gel on the follow spot and the electricity from performing live. I had made a commitment to staying healthy until there was effective treatment. Fifteen years later, when that happened, I wanted my career back. I wasn’t done—I was just beginning! AIDS interrupted my career and my dreams. But in August 1999 I moved to Los Angeles, California to reclaim them.

I instantly booked speaking engagements at UCLA, and worked with an HIV women’s organization and a few rehabs. One day my client in a luxury rehab in Malibu mentioned to the nurse that her sober companion sings.

“She does?” she asked with some doubt.

Photo by Peitor Angell

Turning to me she asked, “Could you sing something for me?”

“What do you want me to sing?” I replied.

“Can you sing opera?” she asked.

Thankfully I knew one Italian aria and sang it in her office.

Her face floored, her jaw dropped open, she said, “If I could sing like that I wouldn’t be a nurse!”

Realizing I had been hiding in the mountains while my dreams were becoming a memory, I shifted gears, out of treatment, headed down the mountain and toward the music.

One night at a party someone called out “Sherri Beachfront!” Surprised, since no one in Los Angeles calls me by that name, I learned it was Peitor Angell, an old acquaintance from New York.

“Are you still singing?” he asked.

“Yes, but not like when I was in New York,” I answered.

“Are you interested in recording? I have songs, tracks ready. Come into my studio we can see if there’s something you like and if they are in your key you can record them.”

“That would be fantastic!” I exclaimed, though feeling apprehensive. The loss of my career had left some serious scar tissue. But I was no longer letting the past interfere with the present.

The miracle of my life has been surviving AIDS. The next chapter is about thriving.

Turn Up the Radio!

Check out Sherri Beachfront’s new single, “Turn Up the Radio,” on iTunes.

A native of New Jersey, Sherri Lewis spent her twenties in New York City as an entertainer. She was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987 after going for a routine blood test for her marriage license and been an activist living with HIV for thirty years. Sherri is currently living in Los Angeles with her dog Romeo, recording music and writing her memoir.