Brothers Stephen and Lee Tiger grew up making music on what is now the Miccosukee reservation. When the two were boys, a pile of toys was delivered from Orlando to distribute to the kids in their village. "We found two plastic guitars that were actually tunable," Lee Tiger says. "So we tuned them up and we started learning to play off those things. It worked." A few years later, at age 13, he got his first wooden guitar. He put a pickup in there, and he began playing at skating rinks and sock hops.
Their first gigs were in the Everglades, where their audiences were straight-faced Native Americans who never abandoned the boys as they rocked onstage like the Beatles, but the villagers also never expressed pleasure in the music either. Tiger calls growing up out there a "different world," explaining, "When I grew up, we didn't have bathrooms; we didn't have lights. We just had lanterns. But that was all right. Man adapts to what's around him, and that's what we had."
For a time, Lee and Stephen moved to Los Angeles, but eventually their father, Chief Buffalo Tiger (who's known for helping the Miccosukees gain federal recognition as a tribe), brought them back to Dade to help launch the Miccosukee Indian Arts Festival. The fest led to Lee's involvement in tourism development and community relations. "I guess my father had foresight beyond me at the time."
But Lee's passion was music. He did a stint with a national act, the Seven of Us (later known as NRBQ). And while in L.A., he and Stephen formed a band that became known as Sun Country and eventually, back here in South Florida, Tiger Tiger. Lee says he's forging the Native American rock movement, breaking old stereotypes. Tiger Tiger enjoyed some success and even garnered a Grammy nomination. They recorded in Nashville once, with Elvis only one studio over. And Lee played with Chuck Berry and alongside big names like Jimi Hendrix at the first Miami Pop Festival.
But in 2006, Stephen died unexpectedly. He passed out and hit the upper part of his neck on the edge of his fireplace. For Lee, he says, it was like a dream. He couldn't believe it. Afterward, "I didn't feel like doing much of music," he laments. The musician was also going through a divorce, and though he played around with his guitar, "I wasn't ready yet."
Recently, he says, "The weight was lifted off. I was stopped up with sorrow; the faucet was closed, and then little by little, it turned on. And then all of a sudden, about three months ago, the floodgates opened up and I started writing."
Lee lights up when the conversation turns to his newest LP, New Era. It features some sounds that his old releases don't. Time spent in the Dominican Republic with baseball star Sammy Sosa inspired him to add some Latin flair to a few tunes. Both men now work in the tourism industry, and Sosa had invited Lee to the island to discuss the idea of the tribe developing a Hard Rock there.
The resort never materialized, but Lee fell in love with the place and makes regular return visits. "I started digging some of the bands that were playing," he says, especially their use of percussion. He purchased a bunch of the equipment that made the Latin sound and brought it back. "I incorporated that sound in the songs that are appropriate," he says. He also began meeting people. "Actually, I started meeting girls," he laughs. And even wrote a song for one of them, "Yovanna Yovanna."
Lee hasn't lost his rock edge or simple pop tunes, but, he explains sincerely, "This New Era is truly a new era for me with my sound."
The album opens with "Red Rocks the Earth," a song about the Seminole tribe's acquisition of the Hard Rock, which he sees as opening the tribe up to the world, making it an economic and social player on an international level. He met with the tribe's chief, gave him a copy of New Era, and explained he wanted to do a tribute to the Seminole tribe.
That tribute will happen as a release party for the LP at the Hard Rock's Swamp Bar, where he'll play in a hut. "I've played in a chickee all my life!" Lee declares passionately. Though he's without his main partner in music, Lee still has a whole tribe behind him as he enters the next phase of his music career.
Lee Tiger. New Era release party. 8 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the Swamp Bar, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Admission is free. Call 954-587-3123, or visit seminolehardrockhollywood.com.