Steel's the Show

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

"We basically move by the presence of God, the Holy Spirit," says Philips, describing how much control he keeps over the musicians. "For the most part, we let 'em run because it's an act of praise, it's biblical where we believe 'praise the Lord with string instruments,' according to the Book of Psalms. If it gets to a point where it's too long, we'll just kind of calm down a little bit. But for the most part, we just pretty much let the Lord have His way."


Despite their love of music and the devotion they put into it, Alvin and Glenn Lee had no desire for record contracts and band tours. Everything was in service to the church, just as it had been for decades with the musicians who came before them. But 2000 became a year of tragedy and transition for the Lee family; patriarch Robert died suddenly in February, and Glenn died of cancer in October. On top of that, Alvin lost his job at Federal Express, then was divorced shortly after.

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

"I just lost a lot of my zeal to play inside the church because Glenn wasn't there, and that's what he meant to me," recalls Alvin. "We'd played so much, it was just me and him. But after he died, it was just kind of a new change of directions. So I just felt that I could continue our music and share with the world."

And so Alvin brought together his two brothers, Keith and Derrick, and three nephews to form the Lee Boys, in honor of his father and brother, and to carry on the family tradition outside the church. Even though the band's music has open references to God and Jesus, it's not a typical gospel sound. Call it a gospel blues jam, with its long solo passages on the pedal steel. Alvin prefers to keep the focus on the music, saying that if people want the preaching, they can go to church. But the gospel is there. And as much as they would welcome the major-label success of Grammy-nominated Robert Randolph, they won't eliminate the gospel to get it. That's just who the Lee Boys are.

"We don't have to force Him on nobody," says Keith, lead singer in the band. "Just our music alone is anointing music. Once you hear the music, you're gonna want to go to church or you're gonna want to know more about it. It gets you in the spirit."

Still a question remains: What if Glenn Lee were alive today and playing to the outside world? In his twenties he was on a level nationally with the best steel players in the House of God, and inspired a new generation with his signature style and fiery licks, including Randolph. But only those within the church can attest to his inspirational live performances.

"Glenn was an original," says Alvin. "He had his own style. Many people try to imitate him and they can play just as good, but you'll never have the person. He was a real showman. So that's why we always wonder, man, how would it have been? But we'll never know."

The Lee Boys are determined to succeed, but sacred steel is a genre that the labels haven't yet figured out how to market. It's not rock or blues or gospel, yet it's a bit of all three and wholly original.

"Some church people may think we're too bluesy for church," says Alvin, "and some blues people may think we're too churchy. So we're caught in that middle."

But as the Lee Boys gear up for a long summer of festival tours, there's no doubt the revival spirit will reign as a new flock of music lovers converts to the power of sacred steel.

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