Preaching the Blues

The Lee Boys bring their raucous guitar gospel out of the church

When you consider the Lee Boys, don't let the term "sacred steel music" intimidate you. Originating from a church in Miami, the group delivers music that is spiritual in nature. But the tone of the Lee Boys' guitar-based music is one of sheer joy, and it sounds a lot like the blues and rock 'n' roll.

"This whole sacred steel movement, this is what we grew up playing and listening to, and it's been in our church for over 70 years," explains band leader/guitarist/vocalist Alvin Lee. "It started in the early 1930s. My father played the lap steel. And that's really how the Lee Boys came to be: My father was taught by his uncle, and from that we just started doing this and here we are today."

Of course, the blues, gospel, and rock 'n' roll are inextricably linked. So it seems perfectly natural that an electric band playing spiritual music would plunder some licks from the more unruly secular music forms that emerged in gospel's wake.

The Lee Boys' music is a raucous take on traditional gospel that emphasizes guitar leads more than lead vocals. Sounding a lot like Robert Johnson, James "Son" Thomas, or even the White Stripes, the Lee Boys' music seems a lot more like classic blues than the angel's choir that sings at the gates of heaven. That said, the spiritual element is undeniable, presented in a straightforward way that even the staunchest atheists might find alluring.

"Our music is definitely well-received at all the venues we play," Lee says. "And while we might play places that serve alcohol, they're always venues that focus on music—it's not like we're just playing at bars on the side of the road somewhere. I mean, we usually play at festivals and art centers. But, you know, when I decided to take it out of the four walls, I made a pact that I wanted to spread the music to everyone."

The Lee Boys—Alvin and his vocalist brothers Derrick and Keith Lee, as well as the brothers' nephews Roosevelt Collier on pedal steel, Alvin Cordy Jr. on bass, and Earl Walker on drums—were content to play within the confines of their church until the rest of the world came knocking. The group found its first notoriety after being discovered by renowned folklorist Robert Stone.

"Back in the early 1990s [Stone] got a grant to record some of this music," Lee says. "He came to one of our services and met my brother, Glen. And from there they recorded the first sacred steel album. And from there the sacred steel name has just caught on. It was like a tradition that was kept secret for a long time. And it's sacred because of the whole spirituality thing coming from our church."

After the departure of two family members, Lee felt the call to take the band on the road. "Me and my brother, the late Glen Lee, we formed a style of music of our own within the sacred steel community and within our church," he says. "Both Glen and my father died in 2000, and when they died it was just real hard for me to keep the music in those four walls. I wanted to take what we did beyond those four walls."

Since then, the band has toured tirelessly in both the United States and Europe, logging an average of over 100 dates per year.

"Traveling that much, you know, guys can get rough," Lee says. "We have our little family quarrels, but in the end we're all family. We love each other and we have each other's best interests at heart. I mean, being a family, it is what it is. But now we're getting a little recognition. It's starting to pay off and it's a wonderful thing.

"We're not necessarily preaching religion, per se," Lee continues. "We just want people to feel better through our music, which comes from our religion. I think we've broken so many boundaries because we let people feel the music. You definitely can feel the spirit of the gospel once you hear it. So we let the music do all the speaking for us. I definitely would like the world to know that this music is definitely feel-good music, and we really like for everyone to have a good time. You know, dancing and jumping and stepping are definitely a part of it. We just want to have a positive message with our music. And if we could just touch one person with our music, then our job is done."