Lee Boys – Next-gen sacred steel
Till now, the stories of musicians who have emerged from sacred steel bands in House of God churches and gone on to become professionals playing in secular circumstances — Calvin Cooke, the Campbell Brothers, Robert Randolph — primarily have been about talents secluded from American music outside the church encountering the wider world, startling the rest of us as they explore.
When the Lee Boys — three brothers and three nephews, sons of their sisters — take to the stage, one look at them tells you that a new generation has arrived. With these huge guys, in black suits and hats, there’s no doubt they’ve had a good look at Run-DMC somewhere down the line. The church commitment is no less, but it’s a different time, and outside influences have been digested for years, not in a matter of months.
There are moments in their music, as heard on their new Arhoolie album Say Yes!, when you can spot discrete turns derived from Eminem and Led Zeppelin, boogie woogie and jazz, Michael Jackson and mainstream gospel — and twangy country to boot. Their version of the old gospel number “You’ve Got To Move” shows how the range of sounds the group has taken in can yield surprises: You may expect traditional gospel, or turns like those of Mississippi Fred McDowell or the Rolling Stones, but the Lee Boys’ version is country swing.
Other tracks feature screaming, rapid-fire pedal steel and a dual vocal attack that’s fresh in sacred steel — the James Brown-like shouts of Keith Lee meeting the smoother neo-soul of younger brother Derrick, who can be reminiscent of Stevie Wonder.
The Lee Boys’ steel player, Emanuel Roosevelt Collier, known as “Velt,” is just 21 and finishing up college. He already plays with fire and flare, and, as observers of recent shows have noted, is increasing his capabilities at an astonishing pace.
“I’m not saying it matters,” says guitarist Alvin Lee, group leader and co-founder, “but every reporter keeps comparing Roosevelt to Robert. The way I see it is that, yes, even Robert Randolph has a threat in Velt — which is OK, since Velt’s had a lot of influence from Robert!”
Co-founder Glenn Lee was a crucial influence on the sound and style of the Lee Boys. First heard on the 1997 Arhoolie Sacred Steel compilation that initially sparked world interest in the music, he succumbed to cancer five years ago, at age 37. A major talent and gifted composer, Glenn wrote (and Alvin arranged) such numbers as “Joyful Sounds” and “Call Him By His Name”, which appear both on the Lees’ new disc and on 2001’s The Word, a side project recorded by Randolph, John Medeski, and the North Mississippi Allstars.
“A hidden strength of this group is their wellspring of original material,” says Bob Stone, the folklorist and producer who almost single-handedly brought sacred steel to wide attention. “Finding new material has been a challenge for others, but Alvin’s got a lot more stuff ready.”
Glenn and Alvin were two of eight brothers and sisters raised into a love of music and the House of God church by their late father, Robert E. Lee, a barber and pastor who saw that his musical children got formal training in reading and theory, went to college, and met the right mentors.
The strong country tinge in Glenn’s steel playing emerged after stays in Nashville, where he was tutored by Music Row pedal steel stalwart Terry Crisp. Unable to make a living playing steel, Glenn played Hammond B-3 organ, which he’d also mastered, in Baptist churches — and organ and sax professionally. The training, and his ability to compose on keyboards, gave his ongoing sacred steel work with Alvin its expansive and special flavor. (Glenn lived long enough to begin teaching young Velt to play twelve-string pedal steel.)
“The sole reason that inspired me to do what I did was the passing of my brother Glenn,” Alvin says of his decision to continue the family band and to take it professional. “What we did together is embedded so deep in me, and in this music, that every time I play I get sad — because I think of him.”
Today’s Lee Boys lineup, which in recent weeks has opened for both the Blind Boys Of Alabama and B.B. King, is sturdy, deep and rhythmically edgy. Funky drumming is supplied by nephew Earl Walker; bass man Lil’ Alvin Cordy, Velt and Alvin are all string players who’d all been in rhythm sections earlier.
“And we touch people,” Alvin says with pride. “When we play, they feel better about whatever they’re going through in life. That’s shown me that God wants our band to be out beyond the four walls. We’re not talkin’ that; we’re letting it come through our music.”