Living the blues

Utah musician Harry Lee will do whatever it takes to perform the music he loves and provide for his family

Story by JONATHAN WISTRCILL

Everyone grows up dreaming of doing what they love, but life usually has a different plan. Something always seems to get in the way and trying to balance a full-time job while pursing one’s dream is even more challenging to uphold. But if a person is truly passionate about something, isn’t it worth a try?

This is the story of Harry Lee and over the course of his life he was able to not just try but also thrive in his work and doing what he loves.

Lee was born in Wyoming but grew up in Salt Lake City, where he was the youngest of seven children. His parents Beatrice and James Lee were both deacons at the Calvary Baptist Church. Growing up in a church not only inspired a strong sense of faith in Lee, but one in music as well. He began singing and listing to gospel music at a very young age, and it did not take long for him to fall in love with not just the gospel genre but all types of music.

Harry Lee doing what he loves: singing the blues. Photo courtesy of Excellence in the Community.

Lee went to his first concert when he was 10. He was not going to watch just a random musician, but the legendary James Brown himself. “He was the showman of all showman,” Lee said in a Zoom interview. “He danced, sang and his band was really tight. It was a performance I will never forget.”

Lee’s parents could not afford to send him to any music classes, but he was able to participate in his school band from the fourth to the ninth grade. He joined his first garage band in junior high and even though he never got paid the experience of being part of a band was one that Lee grew to love. He also fell in love with blues music and the emotional weight the songs carry.

He moved to California after high school, where he attended a small junior college and majored in music. This was the point in Lee’s life where things did not go to plan, so he decided to move back to Utah where he attended Salt Lake Community College. The location was not the only part of college that was changing for Lee though, as he decided to pursue a degree in criminal justice. While in California he had begun working in law-enforcement and found a new calling in the security industry.

Lee worked in security from his college days till his retirement in 2015. When he retired it was as the chief of security for the Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City.

For many, choosing this field would have meant the end of their passion, but not for Lee. He was determined to still do what he loved by working as a security guard by day and playing the blues at night. But for that to happen he would need to form a band.

Lee began attending some Monday night jam sessions at a Salt Lake City bar called the Dead Goat Saloon. Over time he was able to befriend different musicians and form his own band called, “Harry Lee and the Back Alley Blues Band.” The group was founded in 1982 and although a few of the members have changed over time the group dynamic has always been strong.

“Band chemistry is very important,” Lee said. “You got to check your ego at the door and be ready to play music. If you have fun with people that you’re working with then the music will be good.”

Lee is the lead singer and plays the harmonica for the group. One of the first musicians he recruited for his band was a bass player named Mike Ricks. Ricks is still in the band and he remembers what drew him to Lee in the first place was their shared passion for the blues.

“He loves playing the blues and so do I,” Ricks said in a Zoom interview. “I think our musical ideas seem to accentuate each other. We have this open idea about playing where we get a basic arrangement and add a verse here or solo there to try and make something different. It is kind of a free-flowing type of music which makes it fun to play.”

The bond that Ricks discussed is shared by Lee with his other bandmates as well. “These guys are phenomenal,” Lee said. “You can call them up and we’ll just play. They’re really professional and fun to be with.”

Lee is close with his bandmates, but he has an even deeper connection to his wife Wendi Lee. They first met at Wendi’s sister’s wedding back in 1996 and were married soon after. “She’s great, I don’t know how I landed her,” Harry said. “Once we got to know each other we decided that we couldn’t live without one another.”

Lee had been married before and raised seven kids. This time however felt different, and that feeling is shared by his wife. “He’s the most amazing man you’ll ever meet,” Wendi said in a Zoom interview. “He’s kind, supportive and a very spiritual person. I can’t name a bad quality about him.”

The first time Wendi watched her husband perform was an experience she will never forget. “I was just mesmerized by not just the man but the performer,” she said. “He sings with such heart and he loves what he does.”

Harry has helped her raise her two children and made sure to always be there for his wife.

Harry Lee and the Back Alley Blues perform live. Photo courtesy of Excellence in the Community.

With everything going on his world one may think it would have been difficult for Lee to balance it all, but he has his priorities well organized. “Family comes first,” Lee said. “I love music, but I got to make sure my family is fine and then I can go do the things that I need to do with my music, but they have to come first.”

Lee considers himself lucky to have worked with such great musicians and performed all over the country and the world. With COVID-19 closing all concert venues for the past year he has only been able to perform twice in that time span. The most recent of these performances being with Excellence in the Community concert series on Feb. 6, 2021.

“It’s been tough,” Lee said. “I’m hoping and praying that people have been starving for live entertainment and we can get out and fulfill that here soon.”

No matter what happens next for Lee, bandmate Mike Ricks knows he will persevere through it like he always has when adversity has struck in his life.

“He’s had some hard times and had to pay his dues,” Ricks said. “He did it, he got through it he played the blues, he lived the blues, he felt the blues.”