Southington is a long way from
Chicago but Gary Lee is blowing
fans away with his electrifying sound.
Ernest Riggins knows the real thing when he hears it. You don’t spend more than 30 years on the road backing up the likes of Muddy Waters, Jackie Wilson and Etta James without being able to distinguish genuine talent from well polished impersonation. So when Riggins was asked to check out a local musician named Gary Lee, the 58 year old bass player was predictably skeptical. A white guy from Southington who plays the blues? Sounds like a lead character in an Adam Sandler movie. “I wasn’t really expecting much,” Riggins said. “But I thought I would see what the white boy was all about. With the blues, you had better have soul. If you ain’t get soul, your dead.” It didn’t take long for Riggins to realize Gary Lee and the CatDaddys were something more than a converted rock or alternative cover band.
He said Gary Lee not only had captured the sound, but the feel of rhythm and blues - that gift to move an audience, to draw out the emotions inside of it. “I think Gary Lee has what it takes,” Riggins said. Maybe that’s why Riggins, a Warren native who has returned home to be closer to family, joined the CatDaddys five months ago. While the area club scene does not hold the allure of the Apollo Theater or Golden Nugget, he takes pride in knowing the music Gary Lee is generating would not sound out of place in those fabled rooms where Riggins once worked.
Since forming his band 3 years ago, Gary Lee has been blending a mixture of blues, gospel, funk, and rock into one of the area’s hottest acts. Gary Lee and The CatDaddys seem to be winning new fans with each weekend performance and figure to expand their audience base once the band releases its first disc some time next year. “Our music is like a melting pot,” said Gary Lee, the lead singer who claims to have about 25 original songs. “With blues and gospel you have the soul; with funk you have the rhythm; and with rock you have the drive. We’re trying to create our own sound. In the meantime, what we want to do is make people feel better than they did when they came in to hear us. Music is a healing thing. The blues is healing for a troubled soul.”
Judging by the number of bodies routinely spotted grinding on the dance floor, Gary Lee provides more quality care than your average H.M.O. Originals such as “Midnight Train” and “Like Your Kind” transmit an unmistakable energy. But how has Gary Lee developed a strong blues identity with out having spent time in the Deep South ? Since when did the term, “Goin’ down to the crossroads” come to include the intersection of U.S. 422 and Ohio 305? “Gary Lee blew me away the first time I heard him several years ago,” said Chuck Yannucci who along with wife, Holly, has become a loyal CatDaddy supporter. “After the show, I approached him and asked, “Where are you from, Chicago or someplace in the South?” He said, “Southington.” and I said, “Come again?” I couldn’t believe it.”
Anointing of God-
Until Gary Lee appeared at the renowned Chicago club Buddy Guy’s Legends for the first time three years ago, Southington was producing blues musicians at the same rate the Hawaiian Islands were churning out ice hockey players. But Gary Lee said just because the blues is not indigenous to the Mahoning Valley doesn’t mean artists should be dissuaded from pursuing its sound. Blues, after all, is the foundation on which all American music, including rock ‘n’ roll was built. During the 1980’s, when friends were tuned into Journey and Def Leppard, Gary Lee was discovering Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King. His love affair with the blues grew to include Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Albert Collins, Homesick James, Waters and others. “Everything we do has been done before,” said Gary Lee, who began playing piano at age five. “We’re just following the guys who never got the credit. We’re trying to take what they have done, add our own style to it and take it to a different level.”
Like so many bluesmen before him, Gary Lee found his first audience in the church. He has performed in front of congregations at the Warren Revival Center, where his mother, Relda, has taught Sunday school for 35 years and other churches throughout the state. It is not uncommon for Lee to follow a blistering guitar-driven set with hymns such as “Precious Lord” played on the piano. It is a prime illustration of the diversity and range he possesses and it serves as a powerful experience for those who never may have been exposed to gospel in a club setting. “If you come out of the church, it doesn’t matter if you are black or white,” said Gary Lee.“The blues doesn’t have color.”
Several of Gary Lee's biggest fans rarely see him because of their religious convictions. Relda, Gary Lee‘s mother, who sings and plays piano and guitar has attended less than a dozen of her son’s shows. She said she must be a good example for her Sunday school students despite her love of Gary’s music. Lee’s performances are not laced with profanity or lewd behavior even as he covers songs spiced with subtle, sexually suggested lyrics. “The first time I went to see him, Gary played “Big Legged Woman” in my honor,” said Relda, sitting in her living room near a framed needlepoint that reads, “SHHHHH! I’m talking to God.” “From the time he was five years old, he drove me crazy with that Jerry Lee Lewis album. But God has blessed him with his talent.”
Gary Lee said some of the best musicians never perform outside of the church. He has made several attempts to lure organist Auston Shaw, pastor of Community Church of God and Christ, into the nightclub circuit. Lee has performed alongside Shaw for the Community Congregation. They find themselves in a friendly tug of war for each other’s services. “Gary Lee is an excellent musician, I wish he would give that talent back to God,” the pastor said. “He plays with, what we call in the church, an anointing of God. In other words, he touches your soul. “Gary Lee plays a rendition of Amazing Grace that should be heard by the world.”
The Complete Package-
Gary Lee said he follows the music wherever it takes him and sometimes, that means walking down the middle of the street at one a.m. Picture the scene, The Horseshoe Bar is rocking. Riggins and drummer Randy Fitz, another Southington native, are keeping the beat while Gary Lee is a half block away from the East Market Street bar, jamming “Shake Your Money Maker” to stunned passers by. What exactly is the charge for carrying a loaded white double-neck SG guitar with the intent to thrill? Two months ago, police were called to a Gary Lee and CatDaddys’ performance at another area bar, where patrons had begun dancing on top of tables and chairs. According to an eyewitness, the officers restored order, told the band to lower the amps and returned to their cruiser to listen to the rest of the set with windows down. To protect, serve and rock ’n’ roll.
“When people stop having a good time at our shows, I’ll quit and start a sheep farm in the country,” Gary Lee said. “On those nights when you are on and the band is pumpin’ behind you, you can make people feel things they have never felt before.” Gary Lee and the CatDaddy’s are helping spark a blues renaissance of sorts in the Valley. While no one will mistake Warren for Chicago or Austin, Texas, a blues-oriented band is likely to be playing somewhere in the city almost every weekend. Fester Presley, the River Saints, Blue Maxx and Good Brother Earl rate among the other top acts. The Horseshoe has become one of the local clubs committed to showcasing such talent. It may be the only Valley establishment not to have a trace of sports memorabilia on its walls. Among the things you can find hanging there is a painting of Gary Lee by bartender-artist Rod Hathorn.
“It’s very rare to find a musician who plays four or five instruments (lead guitar, bass, piano, drums, harmonica) sings and writes his own music,” Horseshoe owner Steve Lardis said, “Gary Lee is the complete package.” He also is a pretty fair athlete. Gary Lee’s father, Gary Sr., could talk for hours about his son’s baseball career, but it was on the basketball court where Gary Lee enjoyed a brush with greatness. He had an opportunity to guard former heavyweight boxing champion and Southington resident Mike Tyson in a pair of pick-up games at Chalker High School. Gary Lee emerged unscathed, his ear for music - and the other one for that matter - completely untouched. Friends such as Chuck Yannucci delight in telling others that Gary has never met a jumper he didn’t like. Gary Lee is not bashful when it comes to taking shots off the court, either.
The Real Thing-
The “white boy” from Southington never hesitated that night when he was called out of the Jury Box at Buddy Guy’s Legends. About 30 or 40 musicians, all of whom are trying to establish themselves, get picked once a week to perform after the house band is finished playing. On the same stage where Vaughan and Eric Clapton have spun their magic, Gary Lee and three other musicians he had never met were grouped together and given an opportunity to jam before a packed house of blues aficionados and critics.
Good or bad, the folks at Legends give artists what they crave - feed back. Not the kind that crackles through speakers, but the type that goes straight up the spine. Gary Lee said his session on the open mike went well. “If you can do it there, you can play anywhere,” Gary Lee said. “It’s almost a survival atmosphere standing on that stage. Back home you wonder what you’re working toward sometimes. This is it. Playing at Buddy Guy’s gave me a lot of confidence. It gave me the feeling that what I was doing was real.” If Gary Lee's going to make a national name for himself, he likely will have to move to someplace such as Chicago, which houses more than two dozen blues joints.
“I’ll know when it’s the right time to move on,” said Gary Lee, who hopes to start booking dates in the Cleveland area in January. His goal is a 10-12 track disc comprised of mostly original material, anchored by the poignant “Goin’ to New Orleans,” a song that sounds as if it were plucked form the soul of Ray Charles. “I’m really excited about it,” Lee said. “It’s something we have been working toward for a long time. The most important thing is that we stay true to the music of his icons. Recently, one of Gary Lee’s friends presented him with three new guitars. The only stipulation was the friend remain anonymous, according to Gary Lee. “You can’t put this kind of generosity into words,” Gary Lee said. Maybe his wily bass player Riggins could. He might call it an investment. Riggins, who’s helping Lee not only with music but also the business end of the profession, probably won’t return to the road. But he see’s the one Gary Lee following paved with success. “The reason I like working with him is because he plays the real thing,” Riggins said. “And I know the real thing.”