My name is Alvin Lee, but my nephews call me Uncle Al, and my mom always called me Big Al growing up. I was born in Miami, Florida, on Nov. 25, 1966, and raised in a little sub-city called Richmond Heights.
I have seven brothers and sisters. We were introduced to music as a family with my father and my mother. My father was a minister at the House of God Church in Perrine. All my parents did was music. My father sang jubilee songs in the church, played the guitar, piano and trombone.
But what I remember most was him playing the steel guitar.
The sacred tradition was part of our family, all our lives. We grew up in a church and the steel guitar was the focal instrument. He played it every time we went to church. It was a traditional style of music that became a part of us.
He had three girls and five boys. The girls were older, so our older sisters were like second moms. Out of his boys, he wanted to know who wanted to play the steel guitar. That was a tradition — he was taught by my Uncle Lorenzo.
He gave my older brothers, Robert Jr. and Keith, the steels, but they just were not interested. Keith really wanted to sing. Glenn and I were the middle kids, and we were the ones who were interested in guitar lessons. I played bass and Glenn played the guitar. That’s kind of where our musical introduction got started from.
Glenn had such a good ear. He actually was known for bringing the pedal steel to our church. We both took lessons and learned how to read music, but it just kind of went from there to the next level.
The Lee Boys get their name from Lee boy No. 1, my father. My dad used to always say, “Come on my Lee boys, come on” in broken English.
My brother who passed early, Robert Jr., was Lee boy No. 2. Keith was 3, I was 4, and so on.
Then the nephews came from my sisters. And they started giving themselves numbers. And then the boys had boys. So my sons had a number and so we gave them the rest of the numbers down. It became this tradition that we did. So my father gave us the name and when I started the music, I just said we had to be named The Lee Boys.
Growing up, Miami had about eight House of God churches. Not all of them had prominent steel bands. There was this other guy that played with a church in Florida City. His name was Elder Rump, Reverend Rump I think at that time. And man, we got so much stuff from him. We loved to watch this guy play.
We had two churches in Liberty City with some very great steel players, as well.
There were a lot of steel players who played here. You know that you move in the rankings when you get to play a state assembly. Sacred steel came from House of God churches. The bigger gigs at state and national level were sacred steel assemblies and festivals that were taking place outside of the church, since the music had taken off. Now you really know you’re going up when you get to play in Nashville. That’s where all the churches within the organization meet once a year.
Way back in the ’80s, my father convinced the head Florida guy to get us to play. We were like 12. We got our chance cause we were so young, and we rocked it. The next time we got to play on the stage, then we moved to nationals. Then Glenn became a minister of music over the state of Florida. Afterward, he became one of the ministers of music over the national assembly.
He was able to open the door for the rest of us to form a band. I played bass. And my brothers played drums, guitar and everything. We would all switch around, too, and it was real fun.
What I play in band is the guitar, but I grew up playing the bass. I played drums all throughout high school. I was the percussion section leader in Miami Killian High School.
Glenn and I were both in Killian marching band. He played the saxophone.
There, we met a lot of people outside of what was considered a traditional gospel music scene. Some of their music influenced our music, especially a lot of the Spanish influence. Growing up, we had a lot of Cuban friends. There were also a lot of Jewish people. They were all our closest friends. A lot of the elements of the music we use today are intertwined with theirs. The mix of people really helped shape the influence of what we did. It all came from the Miami population.
From this church in Perrine, we were able to shed light on this style of music that’s always been a part of Miami. We grew up here, went to school here. It’s just that now the tradition of what we did is coming out. We’ve helped shape a big scene now.
We’ve all spread out a little now, but we still keep our Miami roots. A lot of us play around here at different churches and concerts. That’s how The Lee Boys give back to Miami after getting so much from the city. It’s a lot of different worlds within one small city.
In February of 2000 my father passed, then we lost Glenn in October of 2000.
Our church audience is one of the hardest audiences to play for. A lot of them look at this music as a tradition. But when we took our music out of the church, a lot of people seemed like they appreciated it more. This one guy came up to us after a gig at a bar and said, “Man, you don’t know what you are doing for my soul. When I heard that music, I felt like turning my whole life over.”
And that’s what I want. I think we can reach so many more people by not trying to throw up a particular situation at them and just letting them enjoy music, which is all the healing you need.
In all honesty, I do what I do to help fill a void of my brother and father. Music was such a big part of our lives. A lot of your biggest influences come at the tender age, like between 8 and 18. We got that at an early age. A lot of kids were playing outside, but we were in the room practicing, studying tapes and building our own creativity.
We have to move on with life, but I was fortunate enough to be able to keep a little part of work that connects me to my family and my city.