An education in the blues
When Bryan Lee was a boy, his mother gave him a portable radio for Christmas.
That was in the 1950s, when portable radios had notoriously erratic reception.
But late at night, under the covers, Lee discovered he could pick up radio stations in Memphis and Nashville.
That’s when he heard the music that transformed his life.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, local residents can hear the results of Lee’s unusual musical education. Lee, a bluesman who has opened for Muddy Waters and played with many of the 20th century’s blues greats, will play at the Pontiac Convention Center, 2809 N. Pontiac Drive, Janesville.
The event is a benefit for the alumni association of the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped, the Janesville school that Lee attended as a child. The alumni association helps with scholarships, transportation and other needed items.
Lee remembers when he first came to WSVH from his home in Two Rivers.
“The facility was really not very good back then,” Lee said. “In our dorm rooms, you were lucky if your radiator worked.”
And staff members at the school weren’t crazy about rock ’n’ roll, either.
“There was not really encouragement,” Lee said. “It was more about classical music.”
One music teacher, however, seemed to understand.
“Gerald McCarthy used to let us play in the music rooms after supper,” Lee said.
By the time he was 15, Lee was touring with a band throughout northeastern Wisconsin.
“My parents were all for it,” Lee said. “There was a law in Wisconsin then about kids being in bars. My mom or dad used to come with me.”
His grandmother had a big Swept-Wing Dodge, and Lee and his fellow band members would load up the trunk with their equipment.
“My grandmother was like my first roadie,” Lee said. “She used to sleep in the car while we were playing.”
His musical life didn’t agree with his teachers—especially when he had a Sunday night gig and didn’t get back to school until 2 p.m. Monday.
“My father had a good attitude about it,” Lee said. “He said if you keep your grades up in school and don’t smoke or drink, you can stay in the music business.”
Lee persisted and after high school spent years touring with bands. It wasn’t until he was almost 40-years-old that he found a regular gig at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. During the 1980s and ’90s, he cranked out the blues almost every night of the week.
Today, he tours across the United States, Canada and Europe with his Blues Power Band.
It’s still all about the music.
One of his favorite memories comes from a free concert in Sao Paulo, Brazil. After the concert, a child came up to him, put little hand over Lee’s heart and said, “Speak no English but beautiful.”
IF YOU GO
What: Bryan Lee and the Blues Power Band.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Pontiac Convention Center, 2809 N. Pontiac Drive, Janesville.
Cost: $20 in advance; $25 at the door.
For more information or tickets: Call (608) 436-2610. Cherry’s Steak & Prime, 13 North Franklin Street, Janesville, is also selling tickets.