Steel's the Show

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

The family can trace its musical roots back to Bishop Lorenzo Harrison, Vera's uncle and one of the original steel players in the House of God, Jewel Dominion, who was heavily influenced by the playing of Willie Eason. When Vera married, her uncle passed his knowledge of the instrument to her husband, who preached and played the steel guitar for years in the church, then taught his sons to play.

From the start, Robert and Vera Lee created a musical household. All of the Lee children -- three daughters and five sons -- took piano lessons, while the boys were encouraged to play any number of instruments, including, of course, the steel guitar. Only Glenn and Alvin showed a strong interest in pursuing music, though. The brothers became solid players on the drums, the pedal steel, guitar, bass, and just about anything they touched, even the accordion. They were good enough to play the drums during church services at the tender ages of seven or eight, as their father worked the steel guitar. But it was Glenn who showed a special gift for music.

"My dad would always be in the room practicing the steel 'cause he was the main musician at the church," recalls Alvin, "and Glenn just got it. The church folks always couldn't wait till my dad got up to preach so Glenn could jump on the steel: 'Yeah, Glenn's playing!' Otherwise Glenn would play the guitar and I would play the bass. That was the setup."

Lee Boys Keith Lee (top) and Roosevelt Collier 
(middle) in action; guitarist Bernard Hampton (bottom) 
plays at the House of God church in Perrine
photos by Jonathan Postal
Lee Boys Keith Lee (top) and Roosevelt Collier (middle) in action; guitarist Bernard Hampton (bottom) plays at the House of God church in Perrine
The Lee Boys (top) aim for the heavens; Elder Tommy 
Philips (middle left) and Deacon Gary Slaton (middle 
right) praise the Lord
photos by Jonathan Postal
The Lee Boys (top) aim for the heavens; Elder Tommy Philips (middle left) and Deacon Gary Slaton (middle right) praise the Lord

The brothers would spend hours practicing in their room or at the church. Glenn quickly became one of the top young pedal steel players in the House of God nation, at eighteen sharing the stage at national assemblies with men twice his age.

On this Sunday morning at the Perrine House of God, the pedal steel, drums, bass, and electric guitar are already in full swing as parishioners file in for the service, which starts roughly between 11:30 and noon. Deacon Gary Slaton, in a fine mustard-yellow suit, makes the rounds, greeting the flock before settling into a pew near the front of the wood-paneled church. Throughout the three-hour service, congregants will continue to trickle in and out.

It is an unseasonably warm winter day for South Florida, and the ceiling fans are working overtime. Curiously, the one above the band has a precarious wobble in its turning, as though knocked loose by the force of the music below. You half expect it to fly off at any moment, while the pedal steel jumps and hollers and exhorts the people to rise in praise of the Lord. It's an easy call to answer, and everyone is soon on their feet, clapping, singing, and swaying to the music.

"It's kind of like a person, a back-up source speaking," says Philips of the role of the pedal steel. "Even in singing or ministering, where the preacher's moving, where he's preaching, whatever, it's a complement to the message or to the psalms."

On the pedal steel now is 21-year-old Jermaine "Tank" Jennings, a relative of the extended Lee family. After bringing the congregation to the height of exaltation, he slows the pace to a calm hum as a middle-age woman makes her way to the front. Opening her heart, she tells her story of medical troubles and financial woes, of trials and tribulations and the dark night of the soul, and of her sweet redemption back to the light of the Lord. As she speaks, she is encouraged by hallelujahs that ring out from the pews until, without warning, she breaks into song, deep and soulful and celebratory. The band picks up the thread and her musical key without hesitation, as though they'd rehearsed it a hundred times before.

And just like that, the music is off and running. In the midst of the tumultuous rejoicing, a man in a wheelchair, with a tenor saxophone in his lap, rolls down the aisle to join the band, and two elderly women in the back pew keep time with tambourines and praises. The music keeps churning and driving, and the flock is standing now, singing and clapping as the pedal steel spits out a fiery exclamation that seems to say, "Get thee hence, Satan, this is a House of God!" It's too much fevered music and rapture for the woman up front, who is overcome with the spirit, shouting out a stream of hallelujahs and praise Jesuses as she paces down the aisle with a handkerchief to her forehead. Ushers trail behind her, then eventually help her to a pew and wave their cardboard fans to cool her down.

For the offertory march, the members of the congregation follow the ushers in a line to the front, dropping bills into the collection plate as the band plays "When the Saints Go Marching In." Then, for the first time in nearly two hours, the musicians fall silent; Elder Philips takes the pulpit for his sermon. For twenty minutes he speaks of the perils of drugs and financial insecurities, his passion rattling the speakers affixed to the walls around the room. "Your labor and your fasting are not in vain!" he exclaims. "Be not weary!" he cries out, encouraging his flock to shoulder on through the hard times. And as the sermon climaxes, the band jumps in, first with a response from the bass drum, then a plunk on the bass. "Can I get a witness here?" Philips beseeches as the sermon ends and the service comes to a close, and the band plays so sweet and sorrowful, it's enough to make you weep with joy.

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