You could say that music has coursed through this alumna’s veins since birth.
After all, Diane Steinberg-Lewis (aka Dianne Steinberg), B.M.′71, comes from a long line of talented musicians. Her father Luther started playing with Tuff Greene’s “The Rocketeers.” After hearing the band in 1947, Mose Allison credited Tuff and the band with playing the first rock and roll.
“Luther always played first chair when bands like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton came to town,” Diane said. “However, later, Luther’s band of ‘first choice’ musicians became the territory band to find your players.”
When most kids were learning their ABCs, Diane was already fine-tuning her Do-Re-Mis.
“Our babysitter’s dad was a preacher and had an old piano in their home,” she said. “They played and I learned a few things by ear at 5-years-old. Once my trumpet player dad observed that, I started piano lessons.”
Known as Martha Jean “The Queen,” Diane’s mother was also a renown pioneer, breaking through many glass ceilings in radio. Her career began at WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee, the first Black programmed radio station, where she worked alongside fellow DJs and longtime friends B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.
Martha Jean “The Queen” is the first African American woman to own her own stand-alone AM radio station in the U.S. For many who migrated from the south to Detroit, she was the voice of home, playing more of the blues and R&B they missed. “She became an influential force, transcending the earlier roles of women sharing recipes for meals for words of empowerment to feed your soul,” Diane said.
At first, Diane had plans to attend college in Switzerland, but that changed when she heard about the 1967 Detroit riot.
“My mother took to the airwaves after a ‘tip’ from the Diocese/Fr. Cunningham that military tanks were being dispatched to the streets,” she said. “Suspending playing records, she proceeded to broadcast for 48 hours straight, appealing, especially to mothers, to get their children off the streets. She became known for ‘Quelling the Rebellion of ′67.’”
Deciding she should be closer to home and go to college in Michigan, Diane chose WMU based on a friend’s recommendation. She had aspirations of becoming a concert pianist but ended up majoring in public school music for secondary education with a minor in theory and composition.
“A BFA in dance wasn’t available then,” she said. “I pined for a ‘performance arts’ major to include dance, theatre and music. But majoring in dance at that time would’ve assigned me to a physical education major, so the choice was clear!”
Fortunately, being a Bronco still allowed Diane to immerse herself in performing, singing with the Western Michigan University Jazz Lab Band and Elwyn “Doc” Carter’s Varsity Vagabonds, dancing with the University Dancers, appearing in productions at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, and honing her piano skills on and off campus.
“I was first performing for myself and a small group in the dorm lounge every evening, until I landed a job at the Whistle Stop,” she said. “I learned to balance my classroom schedule with my performance schedule and work outside of my studies. Performing was related to my education and was immediately applied.”
Diane was also a newscaster at WIDR and joined WMU’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first intercollegiate historically African American sorority in the country.
During her time here, Diane benefitted from the guidance and expertise of several late great faculty members, including dance instructors Clara Gamble and Wendy Cornish, as well as Dr. Robert Smith (Professor Emeritus of Communication), who came to WMU to direct the University Theatre, a position he remained in until 1975.
“They made my artistic life whole,” Diane said.
She also sang the praises of Phyllis Rappeport (Professor Emerita of Music) for helping her bring her piano skills into full bloom. “She demonstrated how dynamics translated to physicality in expression, which to me, was like dancing at the keyboard,” Diane explained. “She put her entire body into the keyboard. Nothing stiff.”
“She was so upset when I went in with that very ‘technical only’ approach on a classical piece,” she continued. “Once I got permission to move, to express like that, my academic piano life opened up. She did that for me, and I think of her every time I play or coach.”
Riffing on Roots: Honoring Her Musical Bloodline
Following graduation, Diane built an impressive career performing, writing, arranging and producing music across a wide range of genres, from pop and rock to gospel and R&B. Her songs have been recorded by jazz greats like Cleo Lane and Natalie Cole.
Beginning her career as choir director and accompanist at Battle Creek Central High School, Diane soon thereafter signed with Atlantic Records, ABC Records, WORD Records (gospel label) and RSO Records on the soundtrack for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. She also starred as Lucy (in the Sky with Diamonds) in this 1978 cult classic musical/comedy alongside music legends Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, Aerosmith and Earth, Wind & Fire.
While Diane has continued to perform, singing and playing keyboards with renown artists like Skunk Baxter (Steely Dan), Elliot Easton (The Cars), Billy Burnette (Fleetwood Mac), and her husband of 46 years, Kenny Lee Lewis (bassist for Steve Miller Band), teaching music has remained part of her narrative. “I always had an ability to perform onstage, but I also had a heart for teaching,” she said. “The performing gave me the platform to use as an opportunity to enlighten and inspire.”
“It’s been uttered that ‘Those who can’t, teach!’ You can’t even apply that to sports anymore,” she added. “Look at Deion Sanders: a great player who also knows how to coach and how to lead. When the Jury at Western’s Music Department decided I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist, my education was channeled into public school music.”
Now through co-teaching/coaching a class called Cabaret805 in San Luis Obispo, California (where she and Kenny reside), Diane is combining her love for performance and education. She has performed with Kenny in various side projects, including a band called BarFlyz and representing Etta James with Kenny Lee Lewis and The Frenz for a tribute to The Fillmore Auditorium, and is currently working on a one woman show.
Passing on the history and harmony ringing through her family to new generations of performers is something Diane feels grateful for every day. Her family members have been recognized with several esteemed honors like the W.C. Heritage Award and even have a Brass Note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame in Memphis. When she was bestowed the Key to the City of Detroit for her performance in Sgt. Pepper, the chance to promote arts education was what Diane valued most.
“To be recognized by your hometown and school is the most heartwarming and affirming show of approval,” she said. “To be able to use your platform to promote education and inspire those to be the best they can be is a blessing.”
Through over four decades of performing and coaching rising talents, Diane has stayed true to that spirit first ignited at Western Michigan University. Her advice for today’s Broncos: learn by doing.
“Be a sponge!” she said. “You learn more when you teach what you’ve learned. You will continue to find hidden treasures in yourself and through others. Stay active and know there are even more amazing abilities to discover when you help others dig for theirs!”
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