The Lee Boys take sacred steel to the secular stage
It seems that the only way to find something new these days is to dust off something old. As a result, every few years an unheralded roots sound is rediscovered. It happened in 2000 when O Brother, Where Art Thou? ushered in the sound of mountain bluegrass. Similarly, interest in the sacred steel gospel-blues style has bloomed over the last decade, thanks to such artists as the Campbell Brothers, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, and the Lee Boys from Miami.
"We're like the old blues guys from Mississippi in those little shacks that kind of invented that sound," says Lee Boys founder Alvin Lee. "You know when the secular part picks it up they're going to take it mainstream."
The lap and pedal steel guitar replaced the organ in Pentecostal House of God churches during the 1940s behind legendary early progenitors Willie Eason and Henry Nelson. Yet it wasn't until such artists as the Campbell Brothers released albums in the mid-'90s that the style began to spread beyond the church. The combination of contemporary blues, rock and funk with traditional gospel caught on with jam band enthusiasts, thanks largely to Randolph's efforts.
"Really, we've been doing jam band all our lives," Alvin says with a laugh. "When Robert Randolph moved to the next level and started doing stuff with bigger people like Eric Clapton, he left an opening and the Lee Boys kinda fill that gap. The jam band community, once they get you, they want to keep you."
But that's hardly where the Lee Boys' influences stop. They've recently been playing with bluegrass heirs the Travelin' McCourys, which has stirred up their country-leaning roots. Alvin also cops to early fascinations with Superfunk, Michael Jackson and Hall & Oates.
Alvin and his younger brother Glen Lee were inspired by their father, a minister who learned to play the pedal steel guitar from his uncle. The youngest of five brothers and three sisters, their father was relatively lenient on them despite their denomination's strict doctrine against playing secular music. Glen took pedal steel lessons from country players, and together they played in marching, jazz and symphonic bands, developing wide interests that they'd throw out during the two to three hour church services.
When Glen died of cancer in 2000, just months after their father died, "it kind of took me for a loop," says Alvin. "I got with my nephews who we were training, including pedal steel player Roosevelt, and I got with my two brothers and told them I wanted to take it out of the four walls of the church."
Since then, the Lee Boys have released a couple of studio albums and a trio of live discs, slowly building their audience and reputation. They've become a staple on festival circuits, appearing at Bonnaroo, the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Austin City Limits, and the Chicago Blues Festival, where the Chicago Sun-Times compared the band to Jimi Hendrix. They even made a stop on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" in 2008. "It was like the longest four minutes of our lives, with all the waiting and anticipation of going on," Alvin recalls.
While Randolph has gone on to record in an increasingly secular style, Alvin remains adamant about his desire to maintain the music's spiritual underpinnings. For him it's as implicit as the wail of the steel. Indeed, he believes the message of faith and hope resonates well beyond its religious origins.
"I wrote this song, 'Feel the music/let it move you/down from your head to your toes/can you feel it all over you?' That's what the Lee Boys want to do, we want to touch people through our music and make them feel better," he says. "Our music is not religion. That's one thing I like to make known ... all of us are preachers, but we're really preaching through the music, not through words."
From the hopping blues of "Let's Celebrate" to the funk groove of the "Lee Boys Praise Jam," the music is infused with a passionate fervor befitting its Pentecostal roots. Its spirit fills listeners with an exultant vibe whether they ask for it or not – which could be the secret to their festival success.
While Alvin admits that finances have been a struggle at times, "we're dedicated to sticking to what we do and remaining true. Every time we get on stage, we're happy. We love our music."
They're already training the next generation of Lees. Alvin's brother Derrick, one of the singers, has a son who displays a talent for singing and drums, and steel player Roosevelt is teaching his son. "The family is real big with this tradition," says Alvin, with mild understatement. "Like any band, we have our little ups and downs but in the end we always come back together because we're family."