“I went home and cried.”
That was blues legend Bryan Lee’s reaction upon being told by Muddy Waters, “Bryan, stay with this. One day you’re going to be a living legend.” Now, more than a quarter-century later, Bryan Lee is one of the most recognizable blues players to call New Orleans home. He’s preparing to play his 25th JazzFest and readying his thirteenth album and while he may not see his name in lights the way that other artists might, he’s become one of the most beloved artists we have in southern Louisiana.
Bryan Lee Lee performed his 25th Jazz Fest in May 2009 and is expecting his 13th album to be released in October of 2009..
For Lee, the blues has been a fickle lover. Born with a skin color not common amongst bluesmen and living without eyesight since the age of eight, the music that he loved didn’t always have a place for him. Born in northern Wisconsin, Lee grew up listening to the blues on AM radio, began playing at 13 and eventually took his guitar down to Chicago. Despite his abilities, Lee wasn’t welcomed.
“I wanted to be in Chicago. My first idols were Muddy and [Howlin’] Wolf,” explained Lee with a degree of hurt in his voice. “But the problem wasn’t so much the musicians, it was the promoters. For the most part, there weren’t too many white guys. I used to get that story all the time. ‘Well, y’know man, you’re really good, but you’re white. And that’s unfortunate. We don’t hire white artists that play the blues.'”
“I’m a blind person, I don’t see any color. I got drawn to this music by the feeling, not by the color of somebody’s skin,” said Lee. “It’s funny, as time has gone on and things have changed, and they respect it and there are less black artists playing the blues – but the market’s still there -the attitudes of promoters have changed. Now I go up to Chicago … and I pack the house. And it’s a good feeling.”
While Chicago’s acceptance of Lee didn’t come until later on in his career, Lee seemed to fit right in when he moved to New Orleans in 1982.
Now, with the respect of peers like Buddy Guy (who will appear on Lee’s next album) and last year’s nomination for a Blues Award (for Katrina Was Her Name), Lee is not content to rest on his laurels.
“Every album has got to be better than the last one. The more you record, the more you have pressure on yourself,” explained Lee.
He continued, “I wrote a song called ‘My Lady Don’t Love My Lady.’ That’s basically about my wife and my guitar. And that’s the title of the album,” said Lee.
The title came from an event following a hospital stay where Lee’s life was very much in danger and his wife’s visitations were limited.
“I came home from the hospital and we’d gone to bed and I woke up at four in the morning. I had such an itch to put my hands on one of my guitars. And it wasn’t anything to disrespect my wife, I just needed to do it,” recalled Lee. “She woke up and she heard me and it really hurt her feelings.
Although Lee’s gravitational pull back to the guitar may have been initially misunderstood by the woman he so obviously loves deeply, it is this gravity that gives his notes and his words so much weight. The pull was not one that led him from her, but back to a part of him that he had been without while recovering.
That weight has not only grown from the more than five decades that Lee has been playing the blues; but also his sensory perception, which has been a part of his life for even longer. Instead of seeing his visual impairment as a handicap, Lee feels it has helped him as a player of the blues.
“I can focus deeper. I don’t have any physical distractions. That’s the grace of God. Yes, I don’t have eyesight, but the good Lord gave me the gift of music and I run into a lot of people that are emotionally blind. Eyesight or insight, its kind of an easy choice to make.”
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