"Back in the early '60s, I used to listen to the AM radio stations like WLAC coming out of Nashville, and they'd play R&B and blues shows at 10 o'clock at night," remembers Lee. "I used to get in trouble with my house mother for playing music too loud in my room -- she'd come knocking on my door, saying 'Turn that trash down!'" But this stuff was so cool. Guys like Smiley Lewis, Paul Gayten, Sugarboy Crawford, Bobby Charles ... and everyone was hearing Fats and Little Richards, and all the records made at Cosimo (Mattasa's studio). I was there when all this stuff was being played, and it's one of the things that drew me to New Orleans."
Lee moved to the Crescent City more than 20 years ago, and has since earned an international reputation through his workhorse gigging on Bourbon Street (including his tenure at the now-defunct Old Absinthe House) and his annual appearances at Jazz Fest. He's best known as a Chicago-style blues-rock guitar slinger, thanks to his speed on the fretboard and a pair of live albums featuring guests like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and James Cotton. But the New Orleans sounds he heard in his childhood remain an indelible part of his soul, and Lee pays homage to that era on his stellar new CD, Six String Therapy.
"This project is something I've always wanted to do," says Lee. "I wanted a jump-blues type record, using an upright bass and tenor and bari sax, and really get the flavor of '50s New Orleans rhythm and blues."
To achieve that goal, Lee made one demand of Justin Time, his record company: he wanted Duke Robillard to produce the album. Robillard, the co-founder of New England's legendary horn-based outfit Roomful of Blues, is one of the most tasteful guitarists and producers on the contemporary blues scene, and his New Orleans knowledge is impeccable, evidenced by his session work on multiple Johnny Adams albums. Justin Time gave Lee the green light, and earlier this summer, Lee found himself in a Rhode Island hotel room, on the eve of his most ambitious project to date. Despite the fact that he's shared the stage with the likes of Eric Clapton, Sting, Little Richard and Jimmy Page in his career, Lee felt nervous.
"I was thinking, wow, I got this big chance. Well, are you worthy of it, can you handle it? Then the next morning, Doug James, the baritone sax player, picked me up, and he's a funny guy, and we were laughing on the way to the studio, and that broke the ice. Then we got there, and Duke had cooked up a big pot of chili. We were sitting around his kitchen table, and all these guys, I was meeting them for the first time -- even Duke and I had never really spent too much time together before. We just started trading road stories, and talking about all the people we listen to, and I found out that I was just one of the boys. I went to the same school they went to, I was just born somewhere else. So when we went downstairs to record, it felt so good. It was a labor of love, for four days."
That feeling comes through on Six String Therapy. Lee romps through some of this favorites in the R&B canon, singing nuggets like Paul Gayten's "You Better Believe It," and the Dave Bartholomew-penned Smiley Lewis classics "Go on Fool" and "Bumpity Bump" with sheer joy. Louis Jordan's "Three Handed Woman" gets a similarly exuberant treatment, and it's a revelation to hear Lee in this environment. His signature six-string pyrotechnics are toned down, replaced by an effortlessly cool swing that's on equal footing with the front-line horn charts and some hammerlock shuffle grooves from the rhythm section. He even does a soulful and jazzy T-Bone Walker-inspired version of "Baby, Ain't I Good to You."
And with a new regular Wednesday-Sunday Bourbon Street gig at the Blues Club (216 Bourbon St.), Lee's working toward adding two saxophones to his band, to continue his new mission on the bandstand.
"I've always said that I'm a singer that plays guitar, and a lot of this stuff never had much guitar featured," says Lee. "What I wanted to do was make the music authentically, then add a little guitar and take it up a notch. Even at 59, I'm still growing up. I did a couple different things on this album, some New Orleans jump things, funk stuff, and 'Little Prince' is a Count Basie-type swing. I've got a lot of tricks in my bag I haven't pulled out yet."