Joe Lewis, dean of Claire Trevor School of the Arts, plays his Martin O-16 New Yorker guitar he got when he was 13 years old. Lewis recently released an album called "Three Black Bungalows." (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / November 3, 2013)

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Tucked into the corner of an administrative building, awash with the hush-hush of important work, an earth-toned room was occupied by furniture, books and knickknacks.

And there it lay — smack-dab in the center.

A curvy black case, held together by a medley of criss-crossing, bedraggled red and silver tape, sat on the carpet. An Eiffel Tower sticker bespoke time in France.

As Joe Lewis opened it with a click, his eyes twinkled at the sight of the guitar sheathed within. Propping up his foot on a nearby chair, the suit-and-tie-clad dean of UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts began playing a tune. His furrowed brow was replaced by a look of peace and an occasional burst of laughter as his fingers flew over the scratched and faded Martin O-16 New Yorker.

"If only this case could talk," said Lewis, reflecting on how it has morphed from hard to soft over the past 47 years.

If, indeed, the guitar's chords were the vocal kind, they'd tell stories about being inside recording studios with Lewis and John Chiodini, a composer and guitarist who has played with Paul McCartney, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and other stalwarts of the music world. On Oct. 1, the duo released "Three Black Bungalows," an eight-song vinyl and 10-song CD with a blues flavor, garnished with folk and classical sounds.

Today, Lewis and Chiodini are close friends, but 15 years ago, they were strangers.


A deal over dinner

One afternoon, Lewis, then chairman of Cal State Northridge's art department, was seated in his office when art student Lauri Chiodini entered and saw his guitar.

"You play guitar?" she asked, with barely contained excitement. "My dad plays guitar. The two of you should get together and jam sometime."

Lewis nodded noncommittally and returned to the task at hand. The next day, Lauri returned with an invitation for dinner and her home address. A familiar face at her father's gigs, she was excited to connect the two and enable them to share the joys of music — something she'd always been surrounded by.

"Oh, did I mention, she never heard me play?" Lewis said, shaking with laughter.

True to his word, though, he arrived at the Chiodini household at 5:30 p.m. on the Thursday that followed. Upon being ushered in, Lewis noticed gold and platinum albums, cassette tapes and CDs peppering the walls. Although Lauri's parents, John and Ginger, served a delectable Italian dinner, Lewis had a tough time swallowing the food. All thoughts of dessert vanished when he learned that the senior Chiodini had been a guitarist for Natalie Cole's big band.

After the meal, Chiodini played some music before asking Lewis to do the same. Though unable to recall which two songs he selected, Lewis knew without a doubt that Chiodini followed along with ease.

"Afterwards, we both just sat there for a few minutes, and then John said, 'You should record that stuff,'" Lewis recounted. "Two weeks later, we were in E3 Studios, recording."

That was in late 1998. After three years, the project was interrupted when Lewis, originally from New York City, moved back East.

Returning to Orange County in 2010, he picked up with Chiodini where they'd left off.

"Joe's an original," said Chiodini, who contributed mandolin, bass, guitar and arrangements to "Three Black Bungalows." "There's only so many chords and so many notes, and what counts is the way someone decides to use that to express themself. That's what was so unique about him."