2011 BHFA — David Lee: Singer, Songwriter, Record-Label and Record-Shop Owner

David Lee: Singer, Songwriter, Record-Label and Record-Shop Owner
by Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter

David Lee was born on May 3rd, 1936, in Shelby, North Carolina. Raised on the Blanton and Yarborough family farms, Mr. Lee began working the land by age twelve, planting and cutting barley, wheat, corn, and cotton. His family was not especially musical, though they were “yard singers” who also sang in church. In his spare time, Mr. Lee took up guitar and piano under the tutelage of a neighbor, and at age fourteen, he began writing poetry, which soon led him to discover his affinity for songwriting. For many years, Mr. Lee’s thereby inaugurated musical practice paralleled a series of strenuous and time-consuming day jobs. From ages 18 until 26 he hauled coal and ice at the Morgan Street ice plant, and then for the next two years he worked at Burlington Mills, one of many nearby textile factories. Mr. Lee then found a long-term job at the North Lake Country Club, and he kept it for three decades through his most active period of music. From about 1967 through his retirement from the country club in 1997, Mr. Lee spent evenings and weekends presiding over Washington Sound, his record shop and audio supply store on Buffalo Street in Shelby. The shop became Shelby’s premiere source for African American popular music and also offered PA installation services, placing units in at least 50 area churches.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Lee made his first recording of his own voice, accompanied by piano and drums, and shopped it around to multiple publishers across the Southeast. This autobiographical song, “I’m Going to Keep on Trying,” ambiguously addressed both romantic heartbreak and repeated rejections from the music industry. In 1961 or 1962, the tune was finally picked up by publishing company Active and received broad regional airplay courtesy of the Air record label out of Miami, Florida. Mr. Lee had only intended the bare-bones track as a demo and was disappointed with the showing. Within the next year or so, “Keep on Trying” would be re-recorded by a proper singing group and full band, the Ambassadors, of Shelby, and released on Air.

Over the next several years, up until the mid-1960s, Mr. Lee launched his own record company with three different releases by the Constellations, a local group who had positioned themselves as rivals to the Ambassadors. Mr. Lee’s stately and airy romantic dialogue “If Everybody” graced the A-side of their first 45 on his new Impel imprint and would become one of the most enduring numbers in his catalog. After the Constellations were split up by the Vietnam War, Mr. Lee found himself with no flagship artist, and he began offering his songwriting and production services to artists outside of Cleveland County. In 1968 or 1969, his collaboration with the Yakety Yaks of Spartanburg, South Carolina yielded “Soul Night,” and this funk tune became the debut record on his new label Washington Sound, named for the shop. Local residents remember it as a theme song that accompanied radio advertisements that promoted the business.

Mr. Lee’s next collaboration would net the greatest commercial success of his career. In 1971, he met Ann Sexton, a young vocalist who fronted the Masters of Soul band in Greenville, South Carolina. Sexton’s recording of a new David Lee demo entitled “You’re Letting Me Down” came out briefly on Impel. The mournful ballad quickly captured the attention of legendary disc jockey “John R.” Richbourg of radio station WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. Richbourg re-released the 45 on his nationally-distributed label Seventy-Seven Records and sold around 90,000 copies. Moving forward, Mr. Lee’s royalties from the Sexton material allowed him to fund several subsequent releases, including lounge material by Bill Allen, sweet soul and funk by Brown Sugar Inc., and his first gospel productions. These were performed by the Gospel I.Q.’s of Grover, North Carolina, the Relations Gospel Singers, who cut their record live at Mice Creek Baptist Church, near Gaffney, South Carolina, the Sensational Gates of Shelby, and Joe Brown and the Singing Mellerairs, with whom Mr. Lee had one of his longest working relationships. In the 1980s, Mr. Lee founded a third label, SCOP, which is an acronym for “Soul, Country, Opera, and Pop,” and put out two more 45s, one by the Singing Mellerairs and one of his own.

Despite a relatively slim discography—fourteen 45s, two LPs, and a handful of cassettes and CD-Rs over a period of fifty years—Mr. Lee’s career in music represents an important contribution to folklife, particularly vernacular music and occupational folklife, in North Carolina, the Southeast, and beyond. Although until recently Mr. Lee’s songs and productions for other musicians (notably Ann Sexton) have enjoyed a higher profile among soul and gospel music aficionados, collectors, and DJs in Europe than among fans in the United States, his work is deserving of the North Carolina Folklore Society’s recognition for its impressive artistry, as well as for its disregard for normative racial and genre boundaries imposed by the broader popular music industry in whose margins he operated.

As a record label and record shop owner, Mr. Lee belongs to a proud tradition of African American music entrepreneurs and businesspeople who thrived in communities across the South during the 1960s and 1970s, both during the Jim Crow era and in its equally stormy aftermath. As proprietor of Washington Sound, and in his role as record label owner, he helped not only to advance the agenda of African American businesses in the state, but likewise to disseminate both local and national soul and gospel recordings that articulated the enjoined personal and political concerns of African Americans, many of whom were his neighbors. The regional focus of his production work and independent releases-—all of the artists hail from within about a seventy mile radius—underscores the significance of African American vernacular music not only to the national discourse of the Civil Rights movement, but likewise to its specific regional iterations. Impel, Washington Sound, and SCOP documented and defined the expressive sound of the North/South Carolina borderlands west of Charlotte.

Mr. Lee’s collaboration with teenage interracial (or “salt and pepper”) band the Constellations, his recording of white lounge singer Bill Allen with the African American group the Masters of Soul, and his own self-identification as a country music songwriter, singer, and stylist demonstrate his persistent commitment to implementing his position as an artist and community leader to nudge tense racial relations towards acceptance and the integration of working musicians and audiences. He persevered despite criticism of his countrified tastes by the African American community, much as the Constellations persevered despite criticism and hostility from some white audiences. Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Lee is a profoundly talented songwriter who is capable of transposing both deeply personal sacred and secular experience into forms of popular song. Like the greatest vernacular artists, he straddles specious genre conventions, embracing tradition and innovation in equal measure. Although shaped by more broadly Southern sounds, his music emerges from a particularly rural local musical identity and sense of place. David’s body of work qualifies as both Ben-Amos’s “artistic communication in small groups,” the music of a community, and as popular songs with international appeal—specific to Cleveland County, but embraced by global soul and gospel listeners. His plainspoken lyrics address romantic loss and spiritual enlightenment alike, and regardless of his roots in country music, the mutable songs sit comfortably and compellingly within soul, funk, gospel, rock, and pop arrangements and performances. This easy adaptability accounts in part for the longevity of his music, especially the legendary Ann Sexton records, so beloved worldwide.

Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter are co-founders of Paradise of Bachelors record label (paradiseofbachelors.com), whose first release, Said I Had a Vision: Songs and Labels of David Lee, 1960-1988, includes extensive liner notes offering further details and many reflections from Mr. Lee drawn from over two years of conversations.

Original publication:
Greaves, Brendan, and Jason Perlmutter. “David Lee: Singer, Songwriter, Record-Label and Record-Shop Owner.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 58.2 (2011): 14-19.

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