Many artists who achieve big breakthroughs and take the masses by storm are also the ones who reinvent the norm and create a persona that's entirely out of the ordinary, and likely entirely untrue to their own roots. But there's a lot to be said for tradition. And it seems like Miami-raised musical siblings the Lee Boys know that well.
Theirs is a sound that blends gospel devotion with a contemporary pulse. It is soulful, passionate, and pervasive. It taps tradition with a faith and fervor spawned in the church their family called home.
With steel guitar front and center, the band has gained a reputation as one of the country's most vital sacred steel ensembles. Following in the footsteps of their father, church elder Robert E. Lee, they absorbed both the finesse needed to champion this joyous genre.
Although they still call South Florida their home, the Lee Boys' fame has spread nationally, thanks to performances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, among others, as well as support slots with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Little Richard and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Then there was that recent appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien that had its host jumping out from behind his desk and offering his unabashed endorsement of the Lee Boys' performance.
Consequently, with the band's aptly named new album Testify garnering rave reviews and an upcoming gig a the Funky Biscuit, New Times opted to seize the opportunity to speak with Alvin Lee about their music, their muse, and their heavenly aspirations.
New Times: Growing up, was there ever any doubt that you and your brothers would become professional musicians?
Alvin Lee: We always played this music growing up in the church, but we never realized that we would end up playing it professionally. We grew up playing together, so the music we play is not only part of a family tradition but part of a musical heritage as well. This style of music has been a tradition in our church for over 80 years now.
My father's playing was influenced by our late uncle, Lorenzo Harrison, and sacred steel legend Henry Nelson. He taught us, and then we taught our nephews and now we are teaching it to our sons. So this has been a big tradition in our family and it's something we've been doing all our lives.
Were there also outside sources that helped increase your appreciation of the sacred steel style?
We learned a lot of it from Robert Stone who recorded for Arhoolie Records and released one of the first sacred steel recordings. He's also credited with coming up with the name "sacred steel." But the Lee Boys have always loved all styles of music, and we've been influenced by all genres. So growing up with those diverse influences has made us who we are -- funky, bluesy, and full of soul.
Aside from the music you grew up with in the church, who were some of your other major musical influences?
Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, the Winans Family, Edwin and Walter Hawkins, Jimi Hendrix, Victor Wooten, the Allman Brothers.... All kinds of country and '80s music.
How about a top ten of artists that you still listen to today?
Being one of the older members of the group, my tastes tend to lean towards Michael Jackson, James Brown, Victor Wooten, Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Stanley Clark, Kenny G, Luther Vandross, Stanley Jordan, and Norman Brown.
So what would you say to people who, for whatever reason, might not be inclined to listen to sacred music?
How would you convince them that the Lee Boys warrant a listen? I'd say, "If you need to be uplifted with some good music that makes you feel good, then you ought to check out our music." Our goal is to touch people through our music and if we can touch one person, then our job is done.
The Lee Boys perform 9 p.m. on Saturday, November 17 at the Funky Biscuit, 303 Southeast Mizner Boulevard, Boca Raton. Tickets are $12 in advance, $17 at the door. Call 561-395-2929.
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