Steel's the Show

A Southern-style church service is a magnet for eerie, heavenly harmonies

But there may be no finer example of the family ideal of this church, and what sacred steel music is all about, than the Lee family of Richmond Heights. The House of God and its music are in their blood, and have been for five generations. And the church they helped found in nearby Perrine -- with a congregation of some 300 (150 regulars) -- is one of the largest and strongest in the House of God nation, where the Lee name is revered.

"The Lee family is a great asset to the church, not only locally, but nationally as well. They have such a legacy," says Elder Philips. "I think it's very seldom you'll find anyone who doesn't know the Lee name in the community. They've been a beacon of light here."

And since 2001, the world is coming to learn about the Lees and sacred steel through a band known as the Lee Boys.

Roosevelt Collier (top) makes the pedal steel sing for 
the Lee Boys; House of God parishioners (above) feel 
the spirit
photos by Jonathan Postal
Roosevelt Collier (top) makes the pedal steel sing for the Lee Boys; House of God parishioners (above) feel the spirit
At the House of God church in Perrine, pedal steel 
player Jermaine "Tank" Jennings keeps the 
congregation joyful
Jonathan Postal
At the House of God church in Perrine, pedal steel player Jermaine "Tank" Jennings keeps the congregation joyful

"If you go to one of our regular church services on Sunday morning in Perrine, you'll see a [Lee] offspring playing the music -- the bass, guitars -- and my brothers singing. That's the type of setting," says Alvin Lee, age 37, who founded the Lee Boys in 2001 and leads the band. "Then what we did is form into a group and put our own musical expertise to it, some jazz, some blues, a lot of blues. Different things infused into this music we love called sacred steel."

On a golden Sunday afternoon at the Miami-Dade County Fairgrounds last November, passersby turned with looks of surprised pleasure toward the small stage set up outside the exhibition hall. The six black men onstage, all of considerable girth and in matching attire, were pumping out an uptempo bluesy sound that caught everyone off guard.

The occasion was the annual Harvest Festival, a fundraiser for the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in downtown Miami. The small crowd that had gathered in front of the stage stood entranced by the music, which thundered through the speakers with such single-minded clarity that it seemed to come from one musician. Where a funky and elaborate bass riff ended, the guitarist picked up without hesitation and toyed with the same musical idea before passing it on to the drummer, who punctuated the statement with dexterous aplomb. Fa-da-tat-Boom. Throughout, the singer with his joyful whoops and powerful growls fed off every string-bending note to exhort the crowd to feel the love, as words like "praise" and "Jesus" and a James Brown-like "Good God!" wafted out atop the musical wave.

Then suddenly, slicing through the air like a razor came the high-tension wail of steel on steel, as the young man sitting at the pedal guitar leaped into a blistering solo -- quivering and ethereal -- that drew a collective gasp from the crowd.

Theirs is a big sound and a big performance, well suited to the festival stages the band will be playing this summer in Canada, New York, and California to anticipated crowds of up to 30,000. And while the Lee Boys remain obscure in their own back yard, they've opened for popular blues star Robert Cray, shared the stage with altrockin' folkie Ani DiFranco, and played the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Lincoln Center in New York.

"When we meet people, they see us coming, these big guys, and they're like, 'Oh, my God, are you rappers?' We've got that because sometimes we'll wear baseball caps," says Alvin Lee, who plays rhythm guitar in the band. "We say, 'No, we're gospel blues singers.' They start talking and we're like teddy bears."

As the name implies, the Lee Boys are all related. Alvin and singers Derrick, age 29, and Keith Lee, age 39, are brothers. They're also uncles to the three younger members: drummer Earl Walker, age 25; Alvin "Lil Al" Cordy, age 25, on the seven-string bass; and Roosevelt Collier, age 21, on the pedal steel.

And there's a reason the Lee Boys' sound is so tight: It comes from the tight bonds of family, which is obvious from a Saturday-afternoon visit to the family homestead. In a corner house off SW 152nd Street in the largely black middle-class neighborhood of Richmond Heights, the living room is full of Lees of all ages, from toddlers and teens to middle-age daughters, all the way up to Vera Lee, mother or grandmother to everyone in the room.

Her home is both the hearth of the family and a hub of its activity, with a daughter as near as the house next door and a grandson as far away as Jacksonville, where Collier is in his third year at Edward Waters College. There are eight children (two have died) and twenty-two grandkids. Family photos fill nearly every square inch of the living-room walls, while atop the mantel a portrait of Vera Lee's husband, the late Robert E. Lee, looks out over the entire proceedings.

"We have a church in Ocala, where I was raised up and I received the Lord," says Vera Lee. "But I moved to Miami when I was going to the seventh grade. And then I moved to Richmond Heights when I was going to the ninth grade. So I've been here a long time." Her family, she adds, has been involved in the church going back to "my grandparents and my mother."

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