There's likely no one better-qualified to share the history of South Florida's live music scene than Lee Tiger. As a founding member of the band Tiger Tiger, alongside his late brother Stephen, his career mirrored the evolution of Miami's budding music industry. Likewise, as a Native American, he also knows better than anyone how hard it has been for indigenous people to make an imprint on contemporary music.
"We were musicians who just happened to be Native Americans," Tiger reflects. "If anything, it's probably a bit of a perk to be Native American, because people from other countries are often curious about the culture and lifestyle. It gave us an edge. It put us in a unique 'world music' category. However, for the most part, Native American music hasn't crossed over to the mainstream here at home."
Tiger Tiger evolved out of several seminal outfits — Sun Country, the Bangles (not to be mistaken for the all-girl group of the same name), and the Seven of Us (which included future members of the band NRBQ) — and the members quickly became regulars on the local circuit in the late '60s and early '70s. Aside from being staples in legendary Miami venues like Thee Image, Evil People, Cheetah, and Heaven, they also performed at the first Miami Pop Festival, which led to a chance encounter with none other than Jimi Hendrix.
"This white limousine pulled up backstage, and there was Jimi Hendrix in the back seat," Tiger recalls. "He rolled down the window and said, 'Hey bud, do you know a place where I can smoke a joint?'?" Tiger's wife knew just the place, and soon the two musicians were swapping stories. That's when Tiger discovered that Hendrix was part Cherokee.
In 1968, the brothers relocated to Woodstock, where they recorded their first album under the name Sun Country. Before the decade was over, they moved to Los Angeles, hoping to be discovered. Their floundering finances notwithstanding, they managed to secure a series of gigs at the Troubadour, the Whisky A-Go-Go, and other fabled venues that made up the Southern California club scene in the late '60s.
They inked a contract with ESP Records and attracted interest from legendary music impresario Don Kirschner and Motown founder Berry Gordy. But a bad management deal and the decision to return home at the bequest of their father, Buffalo Tiger, then chairman of the Miccosukee tribe, short-circuited their attempt to enter the national spotlight. The fact that they never achieved the fame garnered by other Native American musicians like Redbone, XIT, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, Rickey Medlocke of the band Blackfoot, and Jimmy Carl Black of the Mothers of Invention was simply due to a series of bad breaks.
"The business was messy in those days," Tiger insists. "It clearly wasn't meant to happen."
Still, Tiger Tiger would later go on to sign with Sound of America Records, a label wholly devoted to Native American music. That led to a series of albums throughout the '90s and well into the first decade of the new millennium. Meanwhile, here at home, they helped establish Miccosukee Village as a South Florida entertainment and tourist destination. Sadly, though, Stephen's death due to a freak accident in 2006 put Tiger Tiger's activities on hold, leaving Lee to focus on his marketing and tourism pursuits for the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes of Florida and, under the aegis of three Florida governors, the state as a whole.
His father's passing this past January inspired Lee to record a new LP, The Adventure Called Life, his ninth album overall and second effort on his own. Released on Tiger Tiger's own TTM Records, it reflects a myriad of influences, from R&B, blues, and boogie to British-invasion-era rock. Tiger plays all the instruments, aside from guitar parts contributed by friend and collaborator Raiford Starke. It's further evidence that even more than 40 years on, Lee Tiger is as driven as ever, albeit with a new passion and purpose.
"My past comes out in this music," Tiger suggests. "I held off making new music after Stephen died because I was devastated. We were inseparable. But once I decided to go back into the studio, it was almost like I was in a trance. I was just flowing with the music. This album is my new beginning."