Steel's the Show
The pedal steel guitar is a thing of strange beauty. Call it a musical contraption: a guitar neck flattened on a board of wood and resting on spindly metal legs, with sometimes a second neck, or even a third. The strings number eight, ten, or twelve, too many for a proper guitar. A half-dozen or so slender foot pedals rest on the floor, attached to the board above by thin metal rods.
It looks intimidating, this machine of chrome and laminate. But in the hands of a player such as Roosevelt Collier, of Richmond Heights in southern Miami-Dade, the pedal steel wears a halo and takes on a magical life of its own: purring like a kitten one moment, growling like a lion the next.
You won't find the pedal steel much outside country music strongholds such as Nashville or Austin, where musicians make regular use of the instrument's lonesome, twangy fills. But sprinkled around Miami-Dade County, from Florida City to the Broward line and farther north to Pompano and West Palm Beach, are the African-American Holiness-Pentecostal churches of the House of God. Show up for a Sunday service at many of the 22 House of God, Keith Dominion, churches in South Florida, and you'll hear it a hundred feet before you arrive: a long plaintive wail, a sweet beckoning, or a joyful romp galloping at such a fevered pace that the doors and windows practically strain at their hinges. To the side of the pulpit and surrounded by drums, electric bass, and guitar, sometimes a Hammond B3 organ or saxophone, you'll see the pedal steel -- the lead and loudest voice in holy service to the Lord's worship.
"The steel guitar is traditional in the church," says Alvin Lee, who grew up in the House of God in Perrine, playing drums, guitar, bass, and the pedal steel. "House of God churches are always looking for good steel players. The music is about 75 percent, if not more, of the reason people come to church."
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For churches of fewer than 50 members, in which an organ might prove impractical, the pedal steel, both easily portable and musically versatile, is a logical instrument to accompany the service. Adept players can coax a range of sounds out of it, filling the air with praise, pushing the pace of the service with volume and tempo, then pulling back with long vibratos when the occasion calls for solemnity.
Sacred steel music is what this is called, and it is not just played in South Florida. Drive up the coast, and you'll find House of God congregations in Fort Pierce, over in Ocala, up through Jacksonville, and into the panhandle. The House of God has more than 50 churches in Florida, as well as others in South Carolina and Georgia. But it was in New Jersey where a young House of God pedal steel guitarist named Robert Randolph first cut his teeth, the same Robert Randolph who played the instrument at the Grammy Awards this past February.
How the pedal steel guitar, whose country drawl has long put the "honky" in honky-tonk, became such a prominent fixture in an African-American church with fewer than 8000 members nationally is a fascinating story in its own right. But equally amazing is the rich tradition that follows the guitar, the mastery achieved by a number of House of God musicians, and how this all remained discreetly within the four walls of the church for nearly 60 years until its discovery by the secular world in the mid-Nineties.
"It's a generational thing, where people are coming into the knowledge of it, kind of like a period of obscurity and then popularity," says Elder Tommy Philips, pastor of the Perrine church.
The story of the church begins with Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate, who was the first African-American woman to establish a Holiness-Pentecostal church in the U.S. In 1903 she founded the House of God, which split into the Keith, Jewel, and Lewis dominions after her death in 1930. The church continued to expand in the eastern U.S. in the 1930s and '40s, as early leaders such as Bishop W.L. Nelson and Bishop J.R. Lockley traveled to preach at tent revivals, churches, and in homes.
At the same time, Hawaiian music, with its quivering lap steel guitar sound, had become all the rage in the country, piquing the interest of House of God member Troman Eason, who began taking lessons in the mid-Thirties. Soon Eason was playing the guitar at his Philadelphia church and traveling with Bishop Lockley on a revival circuit through the South during winters. The powerful resonance of this new instrument was a hit with congregations, and it wasn't long before Troman's younger brother, Willie, had picked it up as well.
The charismatic Willie Eason developed his own style on the lap steel, giving a passionate and energetic voice to the instrument -- which became known as his "talking guitar" -- while introducing House of God congregations to its musically sacred possibilities whenever he traveled. He inspired his young brother-in-law, Henry Nelson, in Ocala to master the instrument, and Nelson became a key figure in standardizing the style of play within the church. Nelson later passed the art to his son Aubrey Ghent, one of the first steel players to perform to an outside audience, at the National Folk Festival in Chattanooga in 1994.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
"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.
"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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