“Whether he’s wailing a Freddy King inspired blues ballad, stomping out low down and dirty blues, or getting down with a super funky New Orleans groove, Bryan Lee is gonna grab your soul and squeeze it till you scream in blues ecstasy.” – Duke Robillard
BMA Award winner and Grammy Nominee, Bryan Lee, has had a lifetime in the blues. In his mid-seventies, the bluesman, who lost his sight at the age of 8, is still playing consistently and has just released a new album, Sanctuary. His vocal and guitar playing powers are still very much in evidence in a very fine collection of unabashed gospel blues. A long-time resident and performer in New Orleans, with a Chicago blues guitar style which channels Luther Allison, Albert King and Albert Collins, Bryan now resides close to the beach in south Florida, but his musical enthusiasm and passion for the blues is undiminished.
The new album Sanctuary is a top-notch blues album, well produced, recorded and mastered by Steve Hamilton, and, as well as a classy band, features the wonderful, gospel vocals of Deirdre Fellner. There’s a detectable funky, New Orleans feel throughout, from the opener Fight for the Light onward, and Lee’s and Marc Spagone’s guitar work sparkles. Lee lays out his stall pretty early, telling us in Jesus Gave Me the Blues, that the blues is a gift from his saviour – even though he’s “getting low down and dirty.” There’s humour as well – in U-Haul which gets materialism in firmly in his sights, he sings, “I never saw no U-Haul behind a hearse.” You gotta hold on to things lightly. He follows this them again in Mr. Big – where the guy has the big house, fancy car, a Fortune 500 company – “but you ain’t happy.”
The album concludes with two songs recorded with the Adam Douglas band some time ago, but which make a fitting inclusion in Sanctuary. The Lord’s Prayer is as you’ve never heard it before in church – a blues version, but with a distinctive gospel feel, and reverently sung by Lee.
Down at the Crossroads chatted to Bryan about his life in the blues and the new album. He was upbeat, excited about the release of Sanctuary and about life in general.
DATC: Bryan, congratulations on the new album. I’ve been listening to it these past few days, and it’s great, catchy tunes, great musicianship and arrangements. We’ll have a chat about it in a minute. But first of all, Bryan, you’ve had a lifetime in the blues. Tell us about how you got started all those years ago – who inspired you?
BL: I guess in the beginning, the early 50s when I was about 10 years old, I started getting into my folks’ music. I heard Chuck Berry and right away, it was like, “if I could play guitar like that!” And then I heard Little Richard, and I was, “man, I wanna sing like that!” And that kind of drew me into the blues a little bit, but the thing that did it completely – I was 17 years old, and we were getting a new drummer into our band, and we went over to his house. And he played Freddie King’s Hideaway, and we were just knocked out! And then we listened to the B side and it was a slow blues called I Love the Woman. I just fell in love with it and I said, “man, that’s where I wanna go.”
So I went down to the record store looking for Freddie King and found a couple of 45s, and the guy working there sold me an album with Hideaway on it. And I really got into that record – that first song…[breaks into song]…man I was hooked. I’ve heard Wolf and BB and all these guys, but Freddie King is the one that connects to me.
Along the way I got to be good friends with Albert King – he was always nice. I recorded an album way back in 1984 that had four Albert King songs on it, and he came to New Orleans, so I went to see him and gave him a copy of the album. And he listened to it and appreciated what I had done with his tunes. That’s really cool.
But through my 20s my shows were getting bluesier and bluesier and I started getting into trouble with the club owners, who only wanted to hear Top 40 music. But then we had that era when the Allman Brothers hit, and it kinda helped for the blues guys to get their foot in the door.
But, you know, I travelled that old lonesome highway, because that’s what I wanted to do. If you love it, man, you do it.
DATC: What is it about this music that has keep you playing it all these years?
BL: As I get more into the music, the blues gets better with age. It’s the understanding of it. It’s not the devil’s music. You can go to, say, Sao Paulo, Brazil, a very large city, and you get 40,000 people answering you with “hey, hey, the blues is all right”…The blues is a universal language. B B King said it’s places, people and things. It goes to our make up in our soul. You can’t just sit there, you gotta move!
And some guys have that knack. I could listen to T-Bone Walker all day. And probably one of my favourite guitar players of all is Matt Guitar Murphy. I got to be friends with him over the last years of his life. I met him back in 1976 when I opened up for the James Cotton Band and Matt was the guitar player. And he was such a gracious guy. Same with James. James and I were really good friends. There’s something in these people, It’s their soul, that’s what it’s about. You gotta feel it, it’s in your soul.
And you can overcome so much in your life with the power of the blues. And that’s why I made this album, to try and make people understand – Jesus gave us the music. It’s pain, it’s sorrow, but it’s also laughter and success. You gotta fight for the light, you can’t just let darkness break you down. God gave you your life and you gotta respect that. To me, music is the thing that will lift you and will bring you to church and will bring you through stuff.
DATC: And of course, Bryan, your new album, Sanctuary, is an album of gospel blues. And you pull no punches – you’re very explicit about your faith. You say in The Gift, “I’m an old bluesman.” And then you say “Jesus has straightened me out.” Tell us a bit about your journey in faith, how this bluesman found faith.
BL: Well, there was a short time in my life, probably about two years, when I rejected organized religion completely. But I was raised as a Catholic, and we were working in a bar in New Orleans in the early 90s, and we’d have a lot of conventions in the city, there were always people in town. And every evening after dinner, they’d be looking for entertainment. So we would fill the house. Anyway, I met this woman one Friday night, and she was from Seattle, Washington. And she said, Bryan, “I’ve been in town since Monday and I discovered you on Tuesday, and have come every night since” – and she told me she was going to go to the St Louis Cathedral on Sunday and she invited me to go with her.
So we went to church and when I walked up to communion, I knew that was where I was meant to be. And I was like, “Jesus, thank you for not forgetting me.” And she and I had dinner and had a wonderful discussion about things, and we became friends. But she was the one that brought me back to church.
But you don’t just be a good person on Sunday. You gotta be a good person 7 days a week, 24/7. But that’s hard to do, with all the trials and tribulations you might have to go through. Even the rich man has got lots of problems.
DATC: You lost your eyesight when you were a boy. How difficult was it for you to get started playing guitar and start performing and then forge a career?
BL: Well…like most young people I was fearless. So, I’d be up on stage, and to me the place was always full, and people looking at me in a funny way, I don’t see it! I had an advantage!
I remember one night I was walking home. And I had a three-piece suit on, with a fancy tie, and I’m walking home, with a cane in my right hand, and all of a sudden, somebody yells at me, “Stop, stop! Blind man, stop!” So I stopped, and this woman comes up to me and says, “Where is your bucket?” I said, “My bucket?” And she said, “Well you’re blind, you have to have a bucket, I want to put something in your bucket.”
So I said, “Ma’am, that’s all right, give it to the Salvation Army, or the church. I don’t need it, as you can see, I’m working, I’m a musician.” And then she was like, “Aw, shucks.” She’d seen this blind man and thought she better do this man a favour. And I got helped across streets I didn’t want to cross, and up steps I didn’t want to go up. But things like this just always used to make me smile. I think now that people are more aware, it’s not so much like that now.
DATC: You’ve a song on this album Don’t Take My Blindness for a Weakness – you don’t downplay the difficulties, but you sound as if you’ve become very strong through it.
BL: Yes. You got it Gary! It might take me a little bit longer than you, but I will get there. I’ve been playing music since I was 13 years old, and I’m 75 now. I’ve travelled all around the world. I got a chance to play the Montreal Jazz Festival this year – 5th or 6th time I’ve done it – and oh, it was so much fun! People say at my age you shouldn’t do a lot of travel – but I want to get my message out.
This is what I’ve discovered through the years – if we were all blind, we wouldn’t have all these prejudices, we wouldn’t have all this hatred and stuff. Human beings would have to come together and help each other. So, who’s blind? For me, if I’ve got a choice between eyesight and insight, I’ll take insight every time.
DATC: Bryan, tell us about The Lord’s Prayer. How did that song come about?
BL: I was doing a festival in Norway in an island called Svalbard. This week is their dark season festival, it’s basically a blues festival. It was a 5-day festival, with quite a few bands. On the last day, the woman who organized the festival picked two groups to play in the church to close the festival. So she asked me if I would work with the Adam Douglas group. So we got together, and they were just a killer band – they could take a Michael Jackson song and make it sound like the blues! Well, the night before the rehearsal, I went to bed, fell asleep and had a dream about the Lord’s Prayer, the arrangement, the chords changes and all. And when I got up the next morning, it still was in my head – lot of time, that doesn’t happen – normally you dream a song but when you wake up you don’t remember it. So I went to the rehearsal and they asked me what I wanted to do. So I went through the chord changes with the band and they said, that’s great, let’s do it.
So we did it in the church, and we also did the other one, Jesus is My Lord and Savior, Then after the festival we went back to Oslo and we had about two days, so Adam said to me, “we should record those two songs.” So we went into the recording studio and we did ‘em! And we hugged each other afterwards and said, you know, we’re gonna have to finish this some day. And we all hoped we could get back together somehow in the future – but that never happened.
So in 2017, I just decided that if I don’t record this record, I’ll feel like I cheated the good Lord. Because I had promised him this album, for all the good music he’s put in our soul, and the ability to entertain people and to communicate with an audience. I can rip up an audience, you know! I tell stories, but I don’t think about what I’m going to say. I call the first three tunes and then after that, it’s what happens happens!
DATC: It’s a great album, Bryan – the arrangements and the musicianship are all wonderful.
Bryan: Out of my brain and out of my soul! And I’m not through – I’ve an idea for another album, and another album beyond that. And I used to do 300 dates a year, now, not so many as that. But it’s quality, not quantity!
It’s a day at a time, one step at a time. And Jesus is there – we just need to go to that place of sanctuary, where it’s real still, it’s real quiet, where you can really touch the good Lord and find answers to your problems.
DATC: Thank you Bryan.