Vocalist Frankie Lee has always been an engaging and energetic live performer, though his recorded output is still very small given the number of years he's been around, and how legendary his live shows have become. If Denise LaSalle is a modern-day Bessie Smith, then Lee is a '90s Otis Redding. One of Lee's live-show trademarks (like the late Albert Collins' guitar walks) is the point in the show in which he leaves his mike on-stage and walks out into his audience, be it a festival of 10,000 people or a small club of 50. Lee's motto is, "whether it's one or 1,000, me and my band are gonna put on a show."
Lee was born April 29, 1941, in rural Mart, TX. His early influences included Sam Cooke, but before that, he sang in church groups. He recalled in several interviews that his grandmother made him sing, never realizing he'd end up singing blues, not gospel. He began recording in 1963 with Don Robey's Duke/Peacock label out of Houston. He recorded three singles that attracted regional attention: "Full Time Lover," "Taxi Blues" and "Hello, Mr. Blues." While he and Sonny Rhodes were living in Austin, Lee was heard by Ike Turner. That night, Turner invited him to join the Ike & Tina Turner road show. He was off with them the next day, gaining invaluable performing experience.
After returning from the road trips with their revue, Lee settled in Houston and had the chance to work with the people he admired, including Big Mama Thornton, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Ted Taylor, Junior Parker, O.V. Wright, James "Thunderbird" Davis, and Joe Hinton. Don Robey heard Lee in a Houston nightclub and offered him the chance to record. Later, Lee began working with guitarist Albert Collins, and the two became good friends, finally leaving Texas together in 1965 for California. Lee sang with Collins' band for the next six years. By 1971, Lee was in Los Angeles, working with his cousin Johnny "Guitar" Watson. (Watson passed away at age 61 on May 17, 1996.) He recorded for Elka Records, with Watson producing. In 1973, Lee moved north to the San Francisco Bay area, and in the late '70s, he recruited a young guitarist, Robert Cray, to play in his backup band. Finally Lee landed a contract with Hightone Records, a then developing label, and recorded his debut album, The Ladies and the Babies in 1984.
After successful performances with Sonny Rhodes at the Chicago Blues Festival, Lee moved to New Jersey in 1986, where he quickly established a following at clubs and festivals throughout the northeast. Lee was signed to record for the Flying Fish label in 1992, and Sooner or Later, with Doug Newby and the Virginia-based Bluzblasters, was the result. Lee's 1994 release, Going Back Home, was released on the San Francisco-based Blind Pig label. The album was actually recorded back in the mid-'80s, but wasn't released until 1994.
Oddly enough, as of the mid-'90s, Lee's live clubs shows were as energetic as ever, and he's lost none of his enthusiasm for performing, despite the fact that he's now in his mid-fifties. He's got a whole lot of talent and energy left, so there will be more recordings from this exciting vocalist and showman in the future. Records worth owning include The Ladies and the Babies and Going Back Home. Any of his singles for the Peacock or Elka labels, such as "Full Time Lover" b/w "Don't Make Me Cry," are collector's items, and should be snatched up without hesitation. ~ Richard Skelly